Yo La Tengo have not mellowed with age. They may have released something like fifteen albums, they may be built around a husband-and-wife duo, they may be the longest-running indie-rock band this side of (also husband-and-wife) Sonic Youth, etc., but Hoboken’s own has still ‘got it’. Yo La Tengo’s appearance on April 29th at Manhattan’s grand Webster Hall (QRO venue review) is exhibit #1, with exhibit #2 being the band’s latest album, last year’s awesomely titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. Perhaps what keeps Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew so fresh is that their sprawling catalog is full of sprawling records, that stretch from post-modern post-rock to hushed lullabies to heavy-hitting CBGB-style rock ‘n’ roll. Or perhaps what keeps them so right is that they do any of these better than most bands that only focus on one.
Though a band with a twenty-plus year history, over half of their set came from Beat Your Ass. But Beat Your Ass was one of the top albums of 2006, going from the somber grooves of the night’s opener, “I Feel Like Going Home”, to the final two numbers before the first encore break: The hard-and-fast rock of “Watch Out For Me Ronnie” and the post-rock-meets-post-country fifteen-minute-plus Ass-ending epic, “The Story of Yo La Tango” (the common misspelling the band always faces).
There were a few older tunes early on, like the reverbed indie-country of the Wilco-esque 1993 Painful single, “From a Motel 6”, and the thoughtful, conversational “Last Days of Disco” (2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out). But then Yo La Tengo was least afraid and most ass beating, with five straight off the 2006 release. “The Room Got Heavy” was the most improved live, thanks (unsurprisingly) to its jungle drums and (more surprisingly) to its uninflected vocals and simple keys, livening up a song that is somewhat monochrome on Beat Your Ass. In a true Tengo-tactic, they then jumped to the bright Beatle-pop of “The Weakest Part”, the ironic Beatle-pop of “Beanbag Chair”, and the sixties-meets-seventies-meets-today’s sarcasm of Beat Your Ass’s wonderful single, “Mr. Tough”. Sometimes, however, the band’s shifts can cost them momentum, and such was the case with the last of the five Beat Your Ass numbers, the slow, sad, and quiet “Song For Mahila”.
Lead singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan, quite unassuming in-person, displayed the stage presence of man with the confidence of Kaplan’s years, but the energy of someone much younger. He could air his anger at the death of famed New York club CBGB, “I couldn’t be more furious about that being gone, so I wish them the best,” but always with a wry humor, finishing, “And whoever occupies that space from now on, the worst.” He could show honesty, dedicating the night’s last number, 1997’s gorgeous “My Little Corner of the World”, to his parents, but even then, about his preparation for the I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One number, “That’s good – That’s good enough for them [his parents]”. Kaplan then proceeded to mess up, have his wife Hubley call him on it, say he was fine, and then mess up again – all before Hubley had to call someone from backstage to do the whistling because, as the whistler said, “Everybody else has been fucking up” (just before he proceeded to mess up his whistling…).
The one thing unfortunate about Kaplan on stage was that he seemed play all of his rockin’ guitar solos facing his wife on drums, with his back to the audience. If he shreds, he should show the crowd just how hard he shreds. But Kaplan also took requests from the nearby fans during the first encore, first for Beat Your Ass’s “The Race Is On Again” (which Kaplan feared might be too “subtle” as their encore-return song, proclaiming, “That’s the problem with people up front – they get big ideas”), then for the excellent single off of 1995’s Electr-O-Pura, “Tom Courtenay”, with Hubley taking the lead vocals on the song about Julie Christie’s acting partner.
“I Feel Like Going Home” might have been too quiet a song to lead off the evening, but Garden Staters really were coming home (albeit it wasn’t Maxwell’s (QRO venue review), the most famous venue in Hoboken, for the most famous band from Hoboken). It was a little disappointing not to see Webster’s ‘beer-man’, especially for such a Shea-Hey-friendly band (their name comes from an anecdote about the 1962 Mets, and they even covered “Meet the Mets” on last year’s live cover compilation, Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics). The crowd was a diverse mix of ages, from younger fans (mostly closer to the front) to older ones (farther back). That kind of diversity, even at (or at least near) home, is very reflective of a band that delivers such diverse music, so excellently, and for so long – all the while never resting, not even for a minute.