The last time I saw Yo La Tengo, on its fabulously gimmicky Spinning Wheel tour, the trio delivered an abrasive, garage-y opening set under an alter-ego, Dump, and closed with a Jackson Browne cover. This past Friday, the band took the Fillmore stage with a loose, meditative acoustic set, before eventually closing with an incendiary rendition of a Black Flag song. There’s no predicting the content, or structure of a Yo La Tengo show; yet, no matter how vigorously it flips from one genre to the next, it sounds unmistakably like Yo La Tengo.
From its yearly run of Hanukkah shows, to its infamously vast archive of cover songs, the Hoboken, NJ trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew has cultivated a rich mythology over nearly three decades as a band. It’s also maintained remarkable consistency and prolificacy within its recorded material, which, like Stereolab, has caused many a fan to take its casual greatness for granted. Alternating between insistently bouncy pop songs, blissfully droned-out jams, and cozy ballads to wear your autumn sweater by, Yo La Tengo has assembled a wildly eclectic back-catalogue that continues to pleasantly surprise, and occasionally confound live audiences.
At Friday’s show, the band threw out a curveball right away, with an understated, acoustic rendition of “Ohm,” the decidedly electric opening track from this year’s Fade: its 13th LP, and arguably its most muted, direct work to date. Kaplan and McNew powered through the drony, hypnotic guitar riff at the song’s center with a quiet, chugging insistence, reinforced by Hubley’s understated, yet undeniably groovy drum brushing. It was a captivating opener, and a shining example of Yo La Tengo’s penchant for elegant simplicity.
The remainder of the opening set showed similar restraint, shuffling through several other new songs (the Beach House-y “Two Trains,” Hubley’s gorgeously vocalized “Cornelia & Jane,” the raga-ish “I’ll Be Around”) intermixed with material from the band’s back-catalogue. One definite highlight was a stripped-down rendition of “Decora” (from 1995’s Electr-o-pura), while “No Water” (from its second LP, 1987’s New Wave Hot Dogs) was easily the night’s most unexpected selection.
After a short break, during which many bespectacled audience members pined for a louder, freakier closing set, Yo La Tengo retook the stage with a full drum kit, and an arsenal of electric guitars, providing a jolt that the first half was missing. “Beanbag Chair” (from 2006’s curiously titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass) delivered on the band’s talent for effervescently hooky pop songcraft, while “Deeper Into Movies” (a high point from 1997’s seminal I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One) set a darker, angstier mood, foregrounding Kaplan’s fuzzed-out guitar sensibility.
However, a Yo La Tengo show wouldn’t be complete without a sprawling, 10+ minute epic, and the band delivered handsomely with “The Story of Yo La Tengo.” Beginning with ambient washes of guitar and synth, the sprawling jam morphed slowly into a devastating guitar freakout, complete with Hendrix-esque stage theatrics. Given Kaplan’s soft-spoken, dryly funny live persona, watching him attack his fretboard with prog-like dexterity and ferocity was incredibly endearing, in a brain-melting sort of way. Although Hubley and McNew both took turns fronting the band, proving Yo La Tengo as one of the more democratic ensembles around, Kaplan absolutely stole the show.
In true Yo La Tengo tradition, the band came back for an encore set of cover songs: in this case, Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” and the Scene is Now’s “Yellow Sarong.” Following an uncompromisingly pissy, noisy punk number with a kinder, gentler pop selection, the pairing was perfectly symbolic of the trio’s stylistic range.
Few ensembles can claim Yo La Tengo’s dependability while remaining so utterly unpredictable, and fewer can sustain such a balancing act so unpretentiously. Even after three decades and 13 albums together, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew continue to record and perform as vitally and infectiously as many bands on the first leg of their journey. If Sonic Youth’s dissolution is for real, we can officially claim Yo La Tengo as the reigning champions of the autumn-sweatered indie set.