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Yo La Tengo

(6 Oct 2009: Vic Theatre — Chicago)

There was absolutely nothing extraordinary about the start of the concert, except for the complete lack of anything of note. There was no climactic intro music nor was there any dazzling array of light. There were no bells and whistles and aside from a brief dimming of the house lights, the only thing to indicate the start of the show was the appearance of the band and their music. Nothing could have been more unassuming and nothing could have been more befitting for Yo la Tengo. The entrance could almost be a metaphor for how they have conducted their entire 25 year career to date; it was natural, humble, understated and in its own way, classic. For it to have been any other way would have appeared false. Besides, when you can play music like Yo La Tengo, no sideshow fanfare or trickery is necessary.


Upon taking the stage Ira Kaplan quickly stepped up behind the organ and the band slipped right into “Periodically Double or Triple” from the band’s latest record Popular Songs. A slightly surprising choice of opener, as the song is not particularly one of the stronger tracks from the most recent record. It contains a mid-tempo organ hook that simultaneously fuels and mires the song throughout. Thinking back over the show, it still seems oddly out of place. The second song, “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” brought things more in line with the rest of the evening. The track, also from the new record, opened it up a bit as Ira switched from keys to guitar, allowing him to let loose a sonic siege atop the framework put down by James on bass and Georgia on drums. The true tone for the evening was set but in no way complete, because what ensued was almost akin to an overview of everything great about the last 40 plus years of popular music.


The first half of the show was loaded with newer songs, as the band rolled thru numbers like “When It’s Dark”, “If’s It True”, “Here to Fall” and “I’m on my Way”, a song in which James’ disarmingly gentle vocals take the lead. But, with Yo la Tengo it is never as disappointing to hear the newer songs, as it can be with some bands. There is really no telling how they may choose to rework a song in the live setting and with several tracks from the last two records topping the eight minute mark, they seem purposefully created for release into the wilds of a live performance. More often than not, the live rendition brings a greater appreciation. Although with a set that stretched to the two hour mark, the band still had plenty of room to deliver some old favorites into the mix.


While the band has a flair for allowing just the right amount of slack on some of the extended instrumentals, it is when the band reigns it back in to display their equally impressive softer side, that an audience can truly witness the band’s depth. Early in the set they managed to switch gears for a more subdued, “Last Days of Disco” from And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, arguably the band’s best record. The song, which features Ira’s whispery vocals atop a delicate slide guitar and bass, drips and oozes with such heartfelt intimacy that it’s almost an awkward affair hearing it in a large venue standing amongst so many people. Yet, it contains an emotion far too beautiful and relatable to be kept hidden away.


As the set wore on, the band infused several of their more recognized favorites like “Tom Courtenay”, the pulsing “Drug Test” and “Sugarcube”, which has always felt slightly flat on record but on this night seemed to burst forth from the stage led by the driving beat and fuzzed, slashing guitar line. 


While the band went on to perform the rare double encore, which included a Devo cover, the pinnacle came on the last song before their first encore.  It was within a version of “The Story of Yo La Tengo”, a tune which could only be described as epic, that the show reached its climax. As the song slowly grew, it was as if the music was climbing and building in chase after some ever increasing apex. Ira’s jarring guitar textures screeched and soared above the ever building rhythm like red paint haphazardly splashed and splattered across a painting that is serene but lacking in color.


The encores almost served as a buffer, or a chance for people to come down and regain their bearings before sending them back out into the world. While the damage had already been done, tracks like the slow version of “Big Day Coming” and “My Little Corner of the World” helped to soothe the nerves, as well as managed to contain a humorously intense whistle off. The evening finally closed with the beautiful “By the Time it Gets Dark”, a recorded Sandy Denny cover which, as with all their covers, they managed to completely make their own whilst maintaining a respect for the original. The song, which emphasizes the band’s ease of balancing the light and the dark, is capable of bringing tears to one’s eyes or cracking a smile, depending on where you are in your own head.


A Yo la Tengo concert is affirmation of the old adage “Less is more”. When the band is on, and they were on this night, not one single note appears to go to waste nor are any spared. Even in the moments when they seem to be teetering on the edge of control, like during one of Ira’s guitar tirades, somehow every single note and squall of feedback feels necessary. There is a quote which I have always loved but have never fully understood, only in that I have never found it to be applicable to me. “A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.” Typically the first thing I do when returning home from a trip is to start thinking about where I will be going next, but when this quote is placed in the context of a musical landscape, it makes perfect sense. Yo la Tengo is home.

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