All Words By Gareth Moore
All Photos By Julian Vu
During my years working at Crooked Beat Records I discovered the expansive world of Yo La Tengo, and how rabid their fans are. When we received their latest music the store would be bombarded by passionate but polite people who needed their Tengo fix; some people would buy multiple copies of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One just to give as Christmas presents. The reasons for this obsession become obvious after hearing a few of their albums. This trio are highly intelligent musicians with skills, integrity, humour, and imagination.
From all I have heard I have admired them, but I haven’t loved them. So far they haven’t affected my heart as much as my mind. Nevertheless, people have been telling me for years that I simply had to see them on stage. They would say “It doesn’t matter if you like them, or know their albums; this band is stellar on stage!” I can now agree with them.
Some of you may have read that this tour was going to be of a different breed. This was the Yo La Tengo Game Show. The night opened with classic game show music, followed by a large wheel adorned with various colors and words. An audience member was invited on stage to spin the wheel and, as front-man Ira Kaplan stated, the band would do whatever the wheel said.
Some of the choices were playing all the songs that start with the same letter, all the songs that feature the same name (like Kathleen), recreate your favourite sit-com (I really wish I could have seen that; I would have asked them to perform Black Books), a set of Condofucks songs, playing a specific album, e.t.c. A bold idea, but this is an immensely challenging one. This entails practicing a vast amount of music, and studying various classic TV shows, since they could be playing any of them on any night. This is the most creative music display I’ve encountered since Sparks decided to play their entire canon (21 eclectic and eccentric albums over 21 nights).
On this night the wheel landed on The Sounds of Science Part 2, so we were treated to dense instrumentals they had created for underwater documentaries. The first song, The Sea Horse, was a lengthy trip that turned into a gently hypnotic affair. It wasn’t an exciting opener, and plenty of people were talking through it, but as the show progressed we were treated to numerous moments that shocked the senses. These abrupt crashes into chaos always led me to one thought: “What the fuck?!” The Love Life of Octopus was one of those songs. Without warning Kaplan molested his guitar, making it scream in ways I have never heard. Later he did the same thing to another instrument (and from my position in the room I couldn’t tell what he was playing. Organ? Theremin?) I began to wonder if his actions were legal.
The Science set was just four expansive songs, yet they moved with a grace and intellect well beyond my capabilities. I have some knowledge of music but nothing like these three, which is why I can’t accurately explain what genres of music they were exploring. I simply have no idea. One song sounded funky, yet far from proper funk, another seemed to have traces of 60’s mod but I can’t be certain. Suffice to say their songs were loaded with drastic shifts in style and sound, enough to excite the mind and marvel at their stage performance. Let it be known: these three are phenomenal musicians. They are terrific on records but seeing them live is far more satisfying. All three played a variety of instruments, and did so with ease.
Set two was a return to proper concert format. They picked a variety of songs ranging from avant-pop, sonic ecstasy, Beach Boys, nasty garage rock, folk, and more. The highlight was undeniable: I Heard You Looking. What started as delicate and enchanting mutated into a powerful guitar freak-out, only to return to its gentle beginnings. The song must have lasted between 10-13 minutes, but every second was bewitching.
One element that has stayed with me is how such a talented and beloved band can continue playing without a shred of ego or pretentiousness. Instead there was joy, a joy in playing with each other and playing for their fans. Nearly every time I have heard a band say “You know, man, we love coming to DC and the 9:30 club” I wrote it off, but when Ira and Dave said it with such sincerity I was inclined to believe them. These genuine feelings are rare in the music world.
I can report that I walked into the show familiar with their music, but not knowing one specific song, and I managed to be entertained for the entire show. If they ever come your way they are worth seeing. The experts can tell you which albums to start with, but I know the Crooked Beat customers worship I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. One thing I know is Tengo drummer Georgia sings a marvellous song for Stephin Merritt’s the 6ths. If you haven’t heard it, you really should.