Yo La Tengo has deep roots in Chicago, from its first show here at the West End in 1986, to near yearly visits since then, to recording their newest LP, Fade, in Soma Studios with John McEntire. They’ve graced small stages from the Lounge Ax, Rainbo, Lakeside Theater, and Subterranean to larger venues like Cabaret Metro and the Vic to outdoor settings like the Green Music Festival and Lollapalooza. They even had one of their most (in)famous moments here during the Wheel of Yo La Tengo Tour when they performed an entire episode of “Seinfeld” (“The Chinese Restaurant”) to a crowd split between those demanding music and those relishing every quirk of this most original of bands.
Often called iconoclastic or a favorite of critics, Yo La Tengo for me has never been a destroyer of musical conventions, but rather something quite the opposite – they embrace such a wide range of songcraft, and have introduced me to far more bands than I could name, and thus shepherd a wealth of sounds into every album and concert. Their vision is at once unique and generous in its attribution of sonic influences.
All of this played out over the course of a 2 1/2 hour set at the Vic Friday night, their first stop on their current tour without the support of Calexico. The result was a true “Evening With Yo La Tengo” ranging from a sweet acoustic set to noisy guitar freakouts to quirky covers, with the audience hanging on every tune. Even without hit singles they managed to sell out the theater – an action impressive for what it says about their audience who will follow them down roads less traveled with hushed devotion. This has to have been the most engaged, attentive crowd I’ve been jammed into for quite some time.
The first set was played downstage in front of three flat wooden trees, their set for this tour in support of their new record. It wasn’t acoustic, but rather a showcase of their mellower side. Georgia was only on drums for a few songs, and then used only brushes. She played keyboards for many songs, and even donned a guitar. James kept the bass house in order, adding guitar and keys to some songs. For me the focus of the set was Ira’s guitar, mixed with just the right mix of reverb and clarity, tastefully showcasing a lead line that never wandered too far and always sounded just right.
The emphasis was on songs from Fade, including “Ohm,” which they recently performed on Jimmy Fallon with Fred Armisen and Kid Millions from Odeida joining them on drums. The 3-way shared vocals of the song have quickly made it a fan favorite. Other tunes from the new record included “Two Trains,” “Cornelia and Jane,” and “I’ll Be Around,” and all sounded just as lovely as they do in the studio. On a side note, it is an exceptionally strong record from a mature band and for my money has quickly assumed the mantle of best of 2013.
They also debunked a set of rumors that Jad Fair would appear with them but paid tribute to him by playing “Ashes On The Ground.” They recorded a wonderfully odd record with that singer, from the band Half Japanese, called Strange But True, nearly fifteen years ago. The opening set also included a hushed version of a song I’m used to hearing towards the end of one of their shows: “Sugarcube.” It’s a tribute to this band to see them willing to remake this popular song, one that usually sends the audience into a head-bopping dance frenzy, into something quite the opposite. Let it never be said this band rests on musical laurels.
The second set, with both band and trees pushed upstage, exploded open with “Cherry Chapstick” from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The sweet side of Ira’s guitar performance now lay in ruins as he coaxed noisy feedback shreiks from it, waving it in front of his amps while convulsing in a frantic dance. It sounds crazy, and certainly is to watch it, and yet it’s always my sense he is in perfect control of the sound. I’ve seen many bands punish their instruments and create waves of noise, but with Ira, quickly untuning strings and stopping just short of launching his guitar into the air, it all comes across as both tamed and unbridled. I need to give a nod to James as well, who assumed drum kit duties for this song and pummeled them like a giant squashing toadstools, but again, it all worked.
James hit the drums (and maracas) again for “Autumn Sweater” as part of the set that ultimately included songs from 9 of their 13 albums. Highlights for me included “Nothing To Hide” and “Tom Courtenay,” the latter of which included Georgia singing a “bop bop ba-dop” refrain to even its loudest parts. This little touch is emblematic of their approach to songwriting – there’s often an ooh or aah or bop bop there when you need it.
The culmination of the set was “The Story of Yo La Tengo” from their wonderfully-titled I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. This adventure starts quietly, sounding almost like the music they composed for an aquarium – since the song alleges to tell their story, it would only be fitting. After ten minutes or so, the simple riffs has given was to an all-out sonic assault. I would dare any metal band to match it for either intensity or power. And just then, when they needed that extra push, they pushed themselves to eleven and into what I can only describe as sonic lift-off. Ira and James waving screeching guitars around like flags, Georgia steadily pounding away, and the audience dazed and screaming.
How could they come out for an encore after that and what would they play? The answer was typical Yo La Tengo – ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” naturally. By fan request after that they played “Nowhere Near” from their Painful record – a quiet Georgia-sung tune that brought us all back to earth. But we weren’t done. A second encore yielded two great covers – Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away” and NRBQ’s “What Can I Say,” a fitting end to an evening filled with songs you love and songs you didn’t yet know you loved played by a truly accomplished and always charming well-loved band who excel at giving hope and stellar performances to music geeks everywhere.
Reviewed by Neil Rigler on 2/1/13
Photo by Neil Rigler