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Concert Review: Yo La Tengo

Concert Review: Yo La Tengo

After nearly 35 years together, the stalwart indie vets miraculously play like they’ve still got everything to prove–and nothing to lose.

Thalia Hall, Chicago, IL
03/30/2018

Between sets at Yo La Tengo’s second night of a two-night run at Thalia Hall, an audience member who had never heard the band before remarked, “I like it, it’s pretty mellow.” After the show, the same guy could be heard saying to a friend, “Wow…I think my ears are bleeding.”

Yo La Tengo’s spirit animal has always been the Velvet Underground, a band that has been as influential for proto-twee-pop (“I’m Sticking with You”) as for ear-bleeding explorations (“Sister Ray”). So it was fitting that YLT’s two sets would mirror that dichotomy, beginning with more atmospheric material and bringing out the feedback afterward.

The good news is that, after nearly 35 years together, the stalwart indie vets miraculously play like they’ve still got everything to prove–and nothing to lose.

Seeing the band in a live setting shows off how flexible Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew are as musicians, trading instruments and shifting from one band setup to the next as though there were nothing more natural than a drummer on keyboards or a bass player playing snare.

The first set drew mainly from the band’s latest release, There’s a Riot Going On. Stand-outs included the opener, drone-y instrumental “You Are Here,” the shoo-wop-inflected “Forever” and “For You Too,” powered by McNew’s fuzz bass. Elsewhere, Hubley took the lead vocal on the lounge-y “Ashes,” and traded vocals with Kaplan on the Beatlesque duet “Shades of Blue.”

The softer material makes clear how integral the rhythmic element is to the band’s work. Live drumming is often paired with triggered loops and samples and, when it is not, it is doubled by another member’s live percussion—at one point, I think all three members were shaking something. The use of keyboards was also more prominent than expected, playing up the ambient side of the band’s lo-fi origins.

Throughout the show, the band drew from its rich back catalogue as well, performing fan favorites “Big Day Coming,” “Black Flowers” (sung beautifully by McNew) and, yes, “Autumn Sweater,” which was performed with a surprising swagger for such a vulnerable, delicate song.

In the second set, the band came back roaring. Though the band never fully turned its back on melody, its capacity to venture deep into noise has only increased over the decades, with Ira’s guitar histrionics as unhinged as ever and Georgia and James’s seemingly kraut-rock-inspired rhythm section holding down the fort. After a performance of “Today Is the Day” that left the crowd with giddy grins, the band played an epic version of its classic instrumental “I Heard You Looking” accompanied by members of the Chicago band Eleventh Dream Day, who stayed onstage for blistering covers of the Dream Syndicate’s “That’s What You Always Say” and a great, semi-forgotten ‘80s Neil Young tune, “Prisoners of Rock’n’Roll,” proving once and for all that Yo La Tengo can rival anyone when it comes to guitar heroics.

Though Hubley seemed to want it to end there, Kaplan insisted that the band leave the crowd with a lullaby—the Beach Boys’ lesser known “Farmer’s Daughter,” sung with impeccable harmonies even after what must have been an exhausting night. It was a fitting way to end for a band that wants to destroy your eardrums, but not without tucking you in after.

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