Someone online recently made a pretty astute observation about Yo La Tengo; while they have been playing for over three decades now, their fan base has a pretty youthful average age, especially compared to their peers. I guess that underscores in a very meaningful way that they continue to make engaging material that doesn’t pigeonhole them into any particular space. I’ve been thinking about their career arc for a while now and it’s been remarkably consistent, with records that stay true to their original vision but still push at the boundaries into new expanses. They have enough material to eschew any opening bands, and it’s been a treat to see “an evening with” shows for the last several years.
They took that approach tonight, with the first set focusing on the quieter side of things. The last show I caught over in Dublin was a similar affair, with a focus in the first set on the then latest There’s A Riot Going On album, but all the songs bolstering the overall mood of peacefulness and introspection. Two of my all-time favorites made an appearance early on; the lilting, plangent tones of Ira’s guitar gently leading “Green Arrow” (minus the crickets, so maybe it was “Blue-Green Arrow” instead? That was the pre-LP version which came out the year before on a UK-issued 7″), and “Fog Over Frisco” a song that despite its content of an unsettled relationship I find as one of their more romantic songs. After “Tears Are In Your Eyes,” Ira poked a little fun at himself and at the pandemic-induced work layoff, saying that he’d forgotten the little things like plugging in his guitar or saying hello to the audience.
A noisy burst of Urinals’ Ack Ack Ack Ack during the middle of “She May, She Might” gave a bit of foreshadowing to what would come after intermission, but the gentle folkish “I’ll Be Around” with Ira’s barely-breathed vocals and the acoustic version of “Deeper Into Movies” kept the mood consistent, with Georgia leaving her kit to join James and Ira as a trio spread out across the stage. Speaking of that last song, that’s another unheralded talent of this trio, the ability to take a song and have equally engaging LOUD and soft versions, something they’ve done throughout their career. A slowly shuffling “Here You Are” closed out the first set, with James adding a loop of sleigh bells around his bass fret hand as extra percussion.
“Big Day Coming” got the sold-out room’s attention as the second set opener, and the volume dealing began in earnest. “Shaker” has to be their answer to Big Black’s “Kerosene,” right? The insistent “nothing to do” can’t be a coincidence can it? We’ll open the phone lines now to clear up this mystery. “Double Dare” was the song of the night for me, a buzzing whorl of sound, surrounding a lovely melody line. Georgia isn’t a powerhouse drummer and would never be confused with someone like Jason Roeder but she can anchor and propel the song when it’s called for, and this was a perfect example of playing off Ira’s squall. Reaching all the back to 1989’s President Yo La Tengo, “Drug Test” opens with one of the most memorable of lines – “Ate a leftover steak for breakfast/watching the sun go down.” And who among us hasn’t listened to Wake Of The Flood while they’re high? They can conjure these little vignettes of human experience in an effortless way. On the heels came “Sugarcube,” another spiky/fuzzed pure pop nugget.
Actually, I take that back – “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” became the song of the night with James calmly anchoring down the bass pattern while Ira took the role of guitar shaman, coaxing and willing tones from his guitar in all manners of playing, even banging it on the amp head and waving it wildly around his head, at one point leaving it howling on the ground while he picked up another one for some sonic strangling. Like Mogwai, this band has a few epic freakouts they can pull from their hat and this is one of the crown jewels.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Yo La Tengo will know they are the human jukebox, and have offered a wildly ranging and staggering selection of playing other peoples’ songs through their career. They made mention to a (recently deceased) Pete, and while I didn’t get the connection the songs were A+; proto-grunge via the Troggs’ “A Girl Like You,” tongue-in-cheek pop with Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” and the closer of the Beach Boys’ “Farmer’s Daughter.” Another memorable show from one of America’s most enduringly vibrant bands.
Primarily based in Boston, Massachusetts, Tim Bugbee is no stranger to traveling throughout the country or overseas to capture the best live music photos.