Yo La Tengo have always on my periphery, but I never took the time to dig deep. I mostly just knew the dream poppy, shoegaze-adjacent albums, which are still my favorites. When a friend suggested joining him for this show, it was an easy choice, despite my relative ignorance.
They’re touring without an opener and just playing two long sets. The first set started loud, but they immediately took it down several notches and played chill and quiet songs. It was almost too quiet, but they managed to command the audience effectively. Some songs were acoustic, and some were more jam-oriented, and a few were both acoustic and jammy. Ira Kaplan’s acoustic guitarwork was right on par with his electric skills, so it was a welcome variation to the vibe.
The second set also started loud, but mostly stayed loud, often very loud. Most songs were exploratory and relatively heavy, which was a slightly more compelling mood. Sometimes the songs meandered a stretch too far, but the subtle strength, energy, and confidence of the trio was captivating. It also helped that they played more songs that I recognized. The last song of the set, “Blue Line Swinger”, was drawn out for what felt like ages, which again was on line of going too far, but the payoff of the buildup was a delight.
The encore was just three covers, with each member singing lead on one. They were all fairly quiet, sparse, and brief, which was pleasant but simple. Of course I loved “Who Loves the Sun”, but the other two were a bit tame. It was something of a reprieve after the louder songs, but not particularly exciting.
With only three members and no backing musicians or guests, there’s a lot of condensed pressure to make the show interesting. I loved how frequently all three traded instruments. James McNew played everything: bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, and he sang lead and harmony with such a warm, mellow voice. Georgia Hubley, nominally the drummer, played several songs on keyboards and sang several from both behind the kit and in front. Her voice was perhaps just hint too timid and restrained, but so pure and direct. Ira sang more than the other two and was louder, rougher, and rawer. I was surprised at how loose and wild his guitar soloing was. He hit plenty of bum notes, tried some misguided runs, and produced a lot of noise. It kinda worked, though. I find raw emotion more interesting than cold precision, and yet I suppose I expected a higher standard.
While the first set was slow and underexpressed, the second was loud and substantially more intense. The choice of splitting the material in two sections like that made some sense, but it was also a bit wearying to have so much of one approach in series. The individual songs varied enough to keep it interesting, but considering that it was a three-hour show without any real hits, not much pop, and limited melody, I’m not too surprised some members of my party didn’t make it to the end. I was also fairly exhausted, but I found it rewarding. I loved the musicianship, even with my complaints, and the arrangements were consistently compelling. It was an enjoyable show even with its flaws.
01. Sinatra Drive Breakdown
02. Tonight’s Episode
03. Fog Over Frisco
05. Until It Happens
06. I’ll Be Around
07. Nowhere Near
08. My Heart’s Reflection
09. Miles Away
10. This Stupid World
11. Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
12. From a Motel 6
13. Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad [Grateful Dead cover]
14. Stockholm Syndrome
16. Big Day Coming
17. Artificial Heart
19. Blue Line Swinger
20. Who Loves the Sun [The Velvet Underground cover]
21. This Diamond Ring [Gary Lewis & the Playboys cover]
22. You Can Have It All [George McCrae cover]
P.S. Thanks to Tim, Brooke, and Luisa!