Knowing me, knowing Utica

Thirteen years ago today, Yo La Tengo pay a visit to Utica, NY.  I remember it was an outdoor show, lousy weather, a sparse turnout (who could blame anyone who stayed away?), a sizable percentage of whom are amusing themselves with an improvised slip ‘n slide, not much else.  My notes for a given show don’t usually amount to more than the set list, and this one raises more questions than it answers–“We’re an American Band” is a reasonable opener, and covering the Troggs’ “66-5-4-3-2-1” next sounds plausible.  But “It’s Alright (the Way That You Live)”?  Third?  “Mack the Knife”?!  I needed to know more about this show than my memory was providing.  A little research revealed that apparently we were doing pretty much all requests (that still doesn’t explain “Mack the Knife”).  I continued to dig and found this unsigned article from Ithaca College’s Accent:

Yo La Tengo search ends with bongo bash

April 26, 2001

It is 9:55 on a Saturday night in Utica, N.Y. The rain is spilling down on a makeshift trailer-hut, where Yo La Tengo are playing a cover of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing” to the smallish crowd that has braved the weather to watch the indie rock icons. And I’m on stage, playing bongos with a band that I love.

I’m not really sure how I got here or where I’m going afterwards. I remember passing a punk rocker on my way to Park, two weeks ago, and catching just a few words of the conversation he was having with his friend.

“… nic Youth and Yo La Tengo are playing Syra …”

I stopped.

“Did you just say that Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo are playing in SYRACUSE?”

“That’s what one of my teachers said in class.”

I remember searching Pollstar for tour dates, and the screen coming up blank. Yo La Tengo’s Web page said that the band wasn’t on tour. Sonic Youth were scheduled for Germany.

With a little more searching, two dates came up for Yo La Tengo. The Utica one said that it was at “Mohawk Valley College.” Syracuse’s Sonic Youth date was also listed, but it conflicted with Cornell’s Jurassic 5 show. It seems like this happens a lot – three weeks of weak, middle-grade shows and then a weekend of hard-to-make compromises.

I remember entering “Mohawk Valley College” and “Yo La Tengo” into the Google search engine. One match. A message on Yo La Tengo’s postboard, from February. “I am trying to contact Yo La Tengo,” it reads, “regarding playing a concert at Mohawk Valley College …”

There is no response listed, so I send a message to the e-mail link, requesting information and press tickets for the show, hoping I can find a way to legitimize the tickets. There is no need. I receive a response later in the day. “The show is free, but it’s at Munson Williams Proctor Institute.”

I remember pulling into the Arts Institute’s parking lot in Dave’s car, looking at the dark building and feeling a knot in my stomach. “The show was canceled,” I thought, until I got out of the car and heard blasts of distorted guitar from behind me.

I remember walking over, stunned by the rain, stunned by the small number of people watching the band, stunned by their energy, their humor, their songs.

I remember requesting “Green Arrow,” a soupy, intense slide-guitar-driven instrumental, whimsical and gorgeous. I remember them playing the song — one in a number of requests that they granted — and me raising my arms up, greeting the water that fell on my body.

I remember being shocked when their guitarist asked for a volunteer to play bongos with them. Energetic when they picked me. Buoyant as I bounded up on stage, ready for anything. All of a sudden I found myself anxiously pushing through the crowd, walking up the stairs on the side of the stage, shaking guitarist Ira Kaplan’s hand, manipulating my way around the very long but-not-quite-wide-enough platform to a spot on stage, front and center, blocking the bass drum’s soundhole.

I remember hearing drummer Georgia Hubley count off “1 … 2 … 3 … 4” on her drumsticks, not knowing what was coming, but bashing the hell out of the band’s bongos (and my fingers) anyways, hoping that whatever song the band chose to play would be an uptempo rocker instead of a downbeat mood-swinger.

And right now, in the middle of “You Sexy Thing,” I remember what it means to be alive.

My notes are good for one more thing, our correspondent/bongoist’s first name: Jeff.