Thinking back to the last time I saw Yo La Tengo, I just remember it was loud. Their tour in support of 2009’s somewhat-underrated Popular Songs brought them to the Wilbur Theater, and although some of the band’s breezier, less guitar driven stuff was in play, it was a full band set up. Many beers were had if I recall, and I gravitated to the noise.
For whatever reason it took me north of six years to catch indie rock’s crown jewel in the act again. While the band found its way back to the Wilbur Saturday night, this wasn’t going to be an amped retread of my last experience. This was a celebration of the cooler, more soothing side of Yo La Tengo. The show was billed as “an acoustic evening with”, but the warm lighting, seated floor layout, and low key stage set up (complete with upright bass and minimal drum kit) said as much to those who missed the memo. Immediately this held promise, and not just because the newly-minted Hoboken quartet’s quieter tunes are as good or better than their more psychedelic leaning stuff. There’s an innate warmth to this band that makes you want to share a night of quiet music with them — and the band proved more than ready to reciprocate.
Over the course of two sets, the veteran tunesmiths reaffirmed their standing as the best big indie band in the land. That much was more or less a given to the diverse mix of fans young and old in attendance. What’s easier to forget is how Yo La Tengo is pretty much the best cover band we have as well. Going as far back as 1990’s arresting Fakebook, Yo La Tengo has always on some level been a cover band masquerading as indie rock superstars. Now 25 years later we have Stuff Like That There, which plays like its predecessor’s long-awaited sequel. But despite the decades that stand between both releases, the band’s ear for arrangement has kept remarkably in tune. Whether they were dusting off early covers (“The One To Cry”), newer ones (“My Heart’s Not In It,” “Friday I’m In Love”), or even covering themselves by repurposing old favorites (a tidied up rendition of “Big Day Coming” to close the first set was a winner), the common thread was the band’s studious and encylclopedic pop sense. These guys know how to get at the heart of a tune, and with original guitarist Dave Schramm now back in the mix to add some color and layers, Yo La Tengo somehow sounded even more comfortable treating the pop music annals as fodder for musical fun.
It wasn’t an all around perfect night, but even the band’s lone mishap was humorous and endearing. When drummer Georgia Hubley flubbed her part and insisted that they restart, it was the kind of human moment the leisure intimacy of the Wilbur craved. Other than that, the band picked right back up in set two with more fan favorites, Byrds covers, and light-hearted banter (“I was hoping there would be one of those live action, close circuit TVs that would show the Kraftwerk show,” frontman Ira Kaplan joked, acknowledging the dance music pioneers playing next door).
The evening only skirted with raucousness when fans loudly and appreciatively demanded an encore, which consisted of a stroll through Marvin Gaye’s “I’m Your Puppet”, a palatable take on the Devo deep cut “Bottled Up”, and the band’s own “Autumn Sweater.” Same band, same venue, but an altogether different experience from the distortion caked delirium of 2009, the versatility of this tireless band of indie rock lifers continues to be its ace in the hole.