Yo La Tengo have long been able to straddle the line between oldster critic favorite and hipster alt-rock icon. Coming up on three decades as a band, husband-and-wife duo Ira Kaplan & Georgia Hubley, along with James McNew (who joined a mere two decades ago…), have been lauded for about just as long – and not just because Kaplan is a former music critic with a wide breadth of music knowledge. Their albums are intricate gems, which stretch from hushed intimacy to thrashing energy. They’re one of the best cover bands this side of The Replacements (who Yo La Tengo covered on their second covers record, 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics). While firmly ensconced in the New York music scene, they’re proud of their Hoboken, New Jersey home – including playing eight Hanukkah gigs pretty much every year at their hometown club, Maxwell’s (QRO venue review), which always features special guests. And, of course, they’ve never broken through to mainstream success (though recent years has seen the mainstream finally to start to catch on – or the big-name music biz sink further in sales while Yo La Tengo stayed steady).
The band put together everything their fans love when they played an über-classy two-plus sets at New York’s über-classy Town Hall on Saturday, February 16th.
Town Hall (QRO venue review) isn’t your usual New York rock club – it’s a seated theatre on Broadway (though with no box seats) that rarely holds concerts of any kind. One can’t even bring your drink past the foyer! This can make for a slightly unsettled show, but Yo La Tengo made it work for them. They started the night (with no opener) in a hushed tone with “Ohm”, the first track off their latest, Fade (QRO review). Both singer/guitarist/keyboardist Kaplan and singer/drummer/keyboardist Hubley were seated – the only person standing in Town Hall (aside from the ushers) was singer/bassist/guitarist McNew. You could hear a pin drop during the first nine songs, as the audience was transfixed – nary a lit-up smartphone being checked for e-mail or messages in sight. Over half of these songs were from Fade, but also included was a great “Our Way To Fall” (from 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out), “The Ballad of Red Buckets (from 1995’s Electr-O-Pura), cheers for “Black Flowers” (from 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beat As One), and a cover, of course, of Richard Thompson’s “For Shame of Doing Wrong”.
The trio was as subdued as the crowd, but Kaplan did get in a joke, “I’d love to tell you I saw Captain Beefheart here, but I didn’t. Kids In the Hall were good – but it wasn’t Captain Beefheart…” Only at a Yo La Tengo show could you get a comparison between a cult sixties/seventies avant-garde blues-psychedelic figure vs. cult nineties Canadian sketch comedy troupe. Kaplan also mentioned seeing Albert Brooks’ Comedy Minus One record at Town Hall – there were some claps for the 1973 comedy album, but “That record deserved more applause…” Everyone’s a critic – as Kaplan would later say himself…
Before “Black Flowers”, Kaplan also informed the crowd that there was going to be a short break, and then they’d do a more ‘rock’ show – “Management invites you to rip up the seats … Not our words – management…” After “Flowers”, folks raced to the bathroom or the bar during the break (the bartenders thankfully enforced the line that politely developed in the now-packed foyer), but then the lights flickered and people returned to their seats (which remained rooted to the floor). The ‘rock’ portion of the evening had only more song (if you don’t count the encore), but was certainly longer – but that’s because rockin’ out gave Kaplan a chance to jam out. Classics like Electr-O-Pura’s “Tom Courtenay” and “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” (from 2006’s awesomely-titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass) saw Kaplan wail on his axe, but it was a particular type of wailing. It was not ‘guitar god’ wankery that one finds in metal or jam bands, but smashing distortion and feedback (at one point Kaplan literally made music by just waving around his guitar by its neck) from a twisted position, more akin to Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth (QRO live review) – though comparisons shouldn’t be made between Yo La Tengo and that also long-lived NYC alt-icons formed around a husband-and-wife core – because Moore & Kim Gordon split last year, and now Sonic Youth’s future is in doubt. No one wants that for Yo La Tengo, so let’s say Kaplan’s more like Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap (though without the throwing of horseshoes at his guitar – maybe…).
The ‘rock’ portion also was more mixed in terms of albums, as Fade is a relatively softer entry in the band’s discography, and included long-time favorites such as “Tom Courtenay” and I Can Hear’s “Stockholm Syndrome” – though there were particular cheers for the more recent I Am Not Afraid piece “Mr. Tough”. Also notable was the absence of any numbers from 2009’s Popular Songs (QRO review) – but the most-recent-but-one album always gets a short shrift at shows. Yo La Tengo also did “Ohm” a second time, now with ‘the rock’.
After a standing ovation finally brought the crowd out of its seats (admittedly everyone was too polite to stand during the show – as it would block others’ view, but wouldn’t improve your own), Hubley, Kaplan & McNew returned for I Can Hear’s Beach Boys cover, “Little Honda”. But before that, Kaplan mentioned his last visit to Town Hall, when he saw Don Rickles there and his “mind was blown” by Rickles acknowledging celebrities in the crowd, so Kaplan did the same – but of course they were all obscure music veterans you’d never heard of, and Kaplan had to be reminded in a conference with the rest of the band to also name-check Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Good Job! – QRO photos) and his mom (but Rickles’ piano player had “spent five minutes trying to get the name ‘Jack White’ to Rickles…”).
After “Honda”, Hubley asked Kaplan what was next, with which he said he didn’t know and maybe the crowd had some ideas. This request for requests brought a wide variety of shouts, with which Kaplan asked a “woman who looks like she doesn’t want to yell” what she wanted (a little unfair, asking for requests, then pointedly asking someone who didn’t make a request…). The non-yelling lady wanted And Then Nothing’s “Madeline” – “Enough with the feedback, she says…” Kaplan joked before they delivered a beautiful rendition of the Hubley-sung piece. For the final two songs of the night, Yo La Tengo returned to soft covers – Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love” and The Scene Is Now’s “Yellow Sarong” (which is also on their first covers album, 1990’s Fakebook, making it the oldest Yo La Tengo recorded song of the night).
It was definitely a special night for the trio, not playing a rock club for youngsters but a Broadway theatre for an older fan base. Billed as ‘An Evening With Yo La Tengo’ (and even presented by Fordham University radio station WFUV), it summed up everything of the many things that there is to know & love about the iconic Yo La Tengo.
-words: Ted Chase
-photos: Taleen Dersdepanian