All photos: Ryan Kelly
Yo La Tengo eschews immediate gratification. The Hoboken trio has been around for three decades without releasing a genuine hit. They have a reputation for being a band for music geeks or, even worse, critics. Their catalogue is deep, further compounded by the group’s affection for covering songs live. Because their songs lack pop hooks, it can be difficult to recruit new fans. But those who’ve taken the time to study the group’s discography—and considering the 9:30 was stone cold sold out Friday night, many have—are rewarded.
The first half of the show was a somber, acoustic affair. They opened with “Ohm,” the passionate lead song off their latest release, Fade, albeit stripped of its kinetic electricity. The nine songs they played, including solid versions of “Autumn Sweater” and “Black Flowers,” featuring bassist James McNew on lead vocals, were enjoyable, but in no way mesmerizing. The decision to split the show into distinct halves was a mistake. The acoustic set simply lacked energy. Ira Kaplan could barely be heard on “I’ll Be Around,” and Georgia Hubley’s drumming was nearly nonexistent throughout. Yo La Tengo’s thirteen studio albums are a juxtaposition of loud and quiet songs, and their live performances should mimic that.
It’s not a surprise the second half of the show—the electric portion—was significantly better. “Stupid Things” off Fade was followed up by a lengthy, shoegazey version of “We’re An American Band.” “From A Motel 6,” one of the standout tracks from 1993’s Painful, was one long indulgent guitar solo: apropos for an indulgent band. “Ohm” was restored to its beautiful electric glory near the end of the second set, outshining its meek unplugged surrogate.
Each time I’ve seen Yo La Tengo live, they end the evening with a cacophonic noise jam. This night was no different. I would have preferred to hear my all-time favorite YLT song, the krautrocky “Pass The Hatchet,” but plucking “Blue Line Swinger” from the obscurity of 1995’s Electr-O-Pura was a treat to the hundreds in attendance who warmed up to YLT back in the Clinton administration.
Considering Yo La Tengo is a band of music geeks, for music geeks, it’s appropriate their encore consisted entirely of covers from vastly different artists. How different? Try a jazzy, spoken-word cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War (Motherfucker)” and a whip smart punk rendition of the New York Doll’s “Who Are The Mystery Girls?” This was followed with what I believe to be a song by the Monkees: its lyrics allude to “doing the watusi,” a dance that has been obsolete for 40+ years. The final song of the evening was a slowed down, Georgia-sung cover of “Take Care.” Unfortunately, this was not the Drake/Rihanna hit, but the one off Big Star’s third album. It would have been interesting to hear YLT cover a song from this decade, but it’s hard to teach an old band new tricks.