Concert Review: Yo La Tengo


It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a rock concert, especially on my own, but I couldn’t miss seeing Yo La Tengo.  So I took a Dad’s night out to the Wilbur Theatre on Sept. 16th where New Jersey’s finest band entertained a crowd of with a large number young hipsters and colleges students.  Nerd chic was in full effect as many in the audience wore checked shirts, argyle sweaters, and even neckties!  I just had to have faith that the roof of the Wilbur Theatre was structurally sound.  I didn’t feel out of place though because there were plenty of middle-aged music geeks like myself in the crowd as well.

Wilbur Theatre is a classic-style playhouse where all the seats on the orchestra level  have been removed and sectioned off by gates into different standing room only pens.  My ticket allowed me to go all the way up front and found a spot by the stage all the way to the left.  On my way in I was surprised to see three Japanese men all with extraordinarily long hair playing screaming blues rock.  They are Yura Yura Teikoku and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan would tell us letter that this was only their third American city after New York and Burlington.  There psychedelic music was pretty good although I did start to tire of the languid, dreamy guitar solos.  I  could see Kaplan and Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew watching from the wings and drummer Georgia Hubley actually came out to the audience to talk with people she knew.  I refrained from throwing myself down before here and shouting “I’m not worthy!”

Yo La Tengo is one of my favorite bands partly because they are so eclectic.  They are equally adept in folksy songs as they are in power pop and can range between ethereal pieces and noisy machine music.  Similarly, all members of the band can take lead vocals and play multiple instruments.  I guess this versatility can be a turn off as well.  After leading off with “From A Motel 6,” Yo La Tengo launched into a least 8 minutes of reverb, feedback and screeching guitars over a monotonously repeated drum & bass line.   Kaplan stepped into a land where only he, his guitar and amp existed.  It was almost as if Yo La Tengo wanted to test the devotion of the audience.  Later they’d win the crowd over with catchier numbers like “Sugarcube” but lose them again on the finale, an extended version of the Beach Boys “Little Honda” which broke down into another feedback/noise/screech fest.  I actually saw as many people heading for the doors as there were calling for an encore, which I’ve never seen happen at a concert.

But I get ahead of myself, and whatever other may think, I loved every minute of this show.  Highlights for me included seeing McNew – a burly man with a big mop of hair and a surprisingly sweet voice – singing “Stockholm Syndrome.”   Kaplan’s guitar went out of tune on the last verse and he commented that since Wilbur Theatre is usually a comedy club that people might think he was doing comic tuning.  He insisted that they do the last verse again.  Afterwards McNew suggested facetiously that they do it yet again causing much confusion to the roadie bringing new instruments on stage.

For a couple of songs, Yo La Tengo was joined by a string octet of local musicians who accompanied the band on newly composed arrangements by a friend of the band whose name I missed.  The song “Here to Fall” from Yo La Tengo’s new album Popular Songs sounded particularly good with the string accompaniment.  Two of the violinists rejoined the band for the noise part of “Little Honda” with one of them getting down by an amplifier to get distortion from the violin!  Even if it was not a crowd-pleaser, I thought that was worth the price of admission.  The other new song I recognized “Periodically Double or Triple” was a great funky organ piece that you can dance to.

I’ll have to confess that I didn’t recognize a number of songs played, presumably from their newest album which despite that fact that I ordered it in a special package with my tickets didn’t arrive until today and I’ve been unable to find a setlist on the internet.  Also from my perch by the stage my view of the Hubley’s drumming was blocked by a synthesizer and despite being next to an ear-shredding loudspeaker her vocals were inaudible.  Actually the mix on all the vocals was pretty bad. I’m glad she came forward to sing and play acoustic guitar on a couple of songs.  But these are minor quibbles for what was a fantastic show.  I’ve seen Yo La Tengo twice before (once when they were accompanying Jean Painleve’s nature films on their Sounds of Science tour) and thought this was the best of the bunch.  Not bad for a band that’s been around 25 years.

Related links:

  • Acidgalore – the majority of this post is griping about an MBTA shutdown on the night of the show but there is some commentary about the show in the final paragraphs.
  • Boston.com – James Reed of the Boston Globe reviews the show and it’s obvious that he’s a fan.
  • On A Friday – photos from the show including many images of Kaplan going crazy with his guitar.
  • Clicky Music Blog – a photo album from the show.
  • bsearles on flickr – even more photos from the show.
  • NPR Music – a full concert by Yo La Tengo in Washington on September 17th.  Despite being just one day after the Boston show, the set list is almost completely different.  You’ve got to love a band that keeps it fresh.  I also love that NPR considers McNew the “new guy” even though he’s been with the band for 17 years.

Previously: