Playing on the third night of this year's Meltdown, curated by Ray Davies, the alternative rock trio from Hoboken, New Jersey, more than match the high standards set on the two previous evenings by cult acts The Legendary Pink Dots, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and The Fugs.
Yo La Tengo may be named after a convoluted baseball anecdote but, 17 years on from their inception, they have enough of a UK following to headline the main Southbank venue. The group live up to the spirit of an event billed as "Reinventing the Wheel" by asking a member of the audience to spin a wheel and pick the album to be performed during the first half. In the mid-Eighties I saw Elvis Costello deliver a stunning set at the Royal Albert Hall drawn randomly in a similar manner, with actual songs rather than an album in toto – but let's not quibble, especially as we're in luck since the arrow points at Condo Fucks, the Yo La Tengo cover-band alter-ego. They duly launch into Fuckbook, their 2009 album for the Matador label, and reinterpret such garage-rock classics as the Small Faces' "What'cha Gonna Do About It" and The Troggs' "With a Girl Like You" – featuring drummer Georgia Hubley on lead vocals – with the grunge gusto of Dinosaur Jr. or The Lemonheads. Engaging frontman Ira Kaplan pays tribute to the host with a particularly apposite rendition of "This Is Where I Belong", a little-known gem from the Davies songbook, while nods in the direction of Flamin' Groovies and Richard Hell also go down a treat and show how much they have learned from rock's rich tapestry. So far so good.
Annoyingly, after a wistful beginning, the second set runs into a self-indulgent brick wall with the lengthy "Night Falls on Hoboken". Kaplan had threatened 35 minutes of feedback earlier and proceeds to deliver these in spurts over the next hour or so. While visually entertaining when in full flight as he manages to never quite hit the stage with his guitar, he is no Jimi Hendrix, and the shriek frequencies detract from what is often beautifully fuzzy, fragile, dreamy pop – YLT's most recent album is, after all, entitled Popular Songs. Still, the trio recover and rediscover their vulnerable selves and encore with Hubley tenderly singing the standard "My Little Corner of The World", complete with a whistling solo by one of their roadies. Definitely a gig of two halves.