Speaker-sizzling reverb and straight-faced line dancing were just some of the highly entertaining antics of indie band favorite Yo La Tengo at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival. For a band that’s been around for 20 years and released a dozen albums without giving up their independence for mainstream success, it’s no surprise to see the joy they find in their faux rock star performances and their unabashed delight in parodying bands enmeshed in pop culture.
While their set started off as a mellow, dreamy mish-mash of songs comparable to My Blood Valentine or Belle & Sebastian, Yo La Tengo later on may have surprised Austin concert-goers with their recklessly loud keyboards and guitars that jarred people up and off their picnic blankets to see what the hell was going on onstage to make all that noise.
When not pounding on keyboard keys or abruptly swapping instruments with drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew, singer Ira Kaplan (who is also Hubley’s husband) spent most of the time centerstage strumming on his guitar with eyes closed tightly and crooning into the microphone. Easing the audience into the warm Texas afternoon, Kaplan spent the early part of the set on “Season of the Shark”, a gentle melodic tune from the band’s newest album, Summer Sun, that makes you feel like you’re underwater, especially at this show where most people were already wet from the sticky, sweaty, meaty humidity.
The plunking of piano keys and maraca-like shakes in the delicate “Don’t Have to Be So Sad”, also from Summer Sun, brought a heavier intensity to the show as Kaplan rhythmically tapped his fingers along the rim of his guitar and sang quietly with believable sadness, “I felt a chill / I thought that maybe you did too / I wanted to feel that way forever…I’ll try to be what you want to see / If I’m ever that lucky / You won’t have to be so sad.”
Halfway through the show Kaplan shouted, “This is the best Austin City Limits ever,” waking up zoned out stoners and scoring points with many attendees by dedicating the next song, “Tears Are in Your Eyes”, to the recently deceased Johnny Cash and June Carter. Giving Hubley a chance to bring her vocals into the limelight, the heartbreaking song was a fitting farewell to Cash, and, unbeknownst to many, to the mellow part of their set.
Things started to get wacky when Kaplan announced, “Austin is going to have to catch up with the times” by encouraging its bands to be more like *NSYNC and rely on pre-recorded music in order to focus on cool dance moves. At this point, all three band members lined up at the front of the stage and, backed by a pre-recorded bass line and drumbeat, raised their arms and started doing synchronized arm maneuvers that looked either like a 1960s Frankie Avalon surfer dance or someone trying to do the worm with their arms. Not cracking a smile once, Kaplan sang over and over, “Give me one more chance,” as Hubley and McNew zoned out and took two steps forward, two steps backward, bowed their heads, and raised their heads in perfect time.
Amid crazed laughter and now wide-awake fans, Kaplan shifted gears and became a whirl of dark curls hunched over the keyboard as he began sending intense reverb out of speakers while Hubley resumed her spot behind the drums and began pounding away, launching into “Big Day Coming” with full force. Kaplan left the keyboard echoing its sounds as he picked up his guitar and added to the noise by slapping his guitar around.
Reverb reverb reverb! The performance was rife with chaos as Kaplan stood facing his amp pounding on his guitar while McNew was up and down the neck of his bass, swinging it all around stage, at times inches away from speakers. The excitement level in the crowd was through the roof by now—well, through the clouds—as Yo La Tengo let loose its feisty experimental side that explained the comparisons to the Velvet Underground.
Last up was the funny-but-still-eerie “Nuclear War”, where McNew engaged in a call-and-response with Kaplan and Hubley in reciting the lyrics: “Nuclear war / It’s a motherfucker don’t you know . . . If they push that button / It’s gonna blast you so high / Up in the sky / You can kiss your ass goodbye.” Eventually, instruments were laid to rest and the three stood solemnly together again, carrying on the “goodbye goodbye,” snapping their fingers as they walked offstage amid the crowd’s chants. “Goodbye goodbye. Farewell. Goodbye ass.”
For the first time during the show, as revealed by a split-second image from an offstage camera, Yo La Tengo giggled at what they had just done.