The epic adventures of New Jersey’s most enduring cult band. Watch out for weaponised maracas!
Yo La Tengo bring the noise to Dublin and Leon Bridges gets soulful in London town.
How do you find your way from one song to the next? For Yo La Tengo, navigating a path through their vast repertoire every night, the challenge involves memory, creativity, agile working practices and a nimble step. There is a profusion of gear that the multi-tasking trio must dodge on the Olympia stage, a maze of vintage keyboards, guitars, drum machines, drum kits (two), double bass (one) and iPod, that recreates the meticulous chaos of their Hoboken rehearsal space. Passage between workstations, mid-song, can be hazardous, given how the carpet is a minefield of effects pedals, shakers and bells. The air, too, contains obstacles, with painted vinyl discs and CDs dangling from the gantry; a neat manifestation of Yo La Tengo’s status as the beloved band of record nerds nonpareil. Later, Ira Kaplan will commit the ultimate offence, when he smashes a 7-inch, hanging just above the organ, with an inadvertently weaponised maraca. First, though, there is a lot to get through. Earlier this year, YLT played a run of US dates, during which they showcased the immersive textures of their new album, There’s A Riot Going On, along with an uncanny mastery of their previous 14 albums, and a knack for finding an unlikely cover version or three for every occasion. One hundred and twenty-two different songs were essayed across 15 gigs. “It seems now there’s more RAM, like we’re accruing lots of memory,” says James McNew, after the first European show’s soundcheck. “You’re supposed to start forgetting things as you grow older, but it seems we’re remembering more.” McNew, 48, is the new guy. He joined in 1991, seven years after Kaplan, 61, and Georgia Hubley, 58, had founded the band. Their endurance pivots on being the quintessential indie rockers – “37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster”, read a notorious Onion headline – who rarely sound or behave like anything so straightforward. “Certain bands of our age play their new album and the same eight old songs, and then the next tour one of those eight falls by the wayside and they do the same seven,” says Kaplan. “To not be like that is a conscious decision.” A typical Yo La Tengo show in 2018, then, is a study in extremes: hushed precision and cacophonous abandon. It begins with tambourines, some freeform rustle and an arc of feedback. This is You Are Here, the first track on the new album and a useful mission statement for the quasiambient space that YLT currently occupy in the studio. As the song progresses, though,
“KAPLAN WRESTLES HIS GUITAR ABOVE HIS HEAD, TURNED UP SO LOUD THE FEEDBACK BECOMES VISCERAL.”
the ethereal becomes more substantive, Kaplan shaping a guitar line reminiscent of solo Michael Rother. In an opening set which also features lunar doo wop (Forever), beatnik folk-pop (One PM Again) and some gorgeous Velvetsy miniatures (The Hour Grows Late and I Feel Like Going Home), the minimalist peak comes with Ashes, a serene mix of drone rock and exotica. While Hubley sings, Kaplan takes three considered trips from his organ to the unoccupied drum kit, where he applies a single brushstroke to a cymbal and returns to base. In the interstices, there is the gripping spectacle of a band improvising new routes from one disparate song to another. If the first half mood suits the grand intimacy of this old theatre, the belligerence that punctuates the second set is both shocking and bracing. Dream Dream Away’s amniotic strum is a red herring. Now, Kaplan’s self-effacement is replaced by an older persona – that of noise-rock maven, wrestling his guitar above his head and into his guts, turned up so loud the trajectories of feedback become visceral. Not everything totally succeeds; the clank undermining Hubley’s filigree Shades Of Blue may be an experiment too far. But mostly, from a deranged take on 1995’s Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1) to the mellifluous squalls of I Heard You Looking, the set reasserts YLT’s most potent secret. Hiding behind assumptions of indie tweeness, Kaplan is actually one of the most furiously inventive guitar heroes of his generation. That he chooses to deploy his virtuosity with such measure is a key part of what makes his band so special. They are rock scholars – Alternative TV and Gene Clark covers are conjured up for the encore – whose knowledge informs, but never overwhelms a highly personalised soundworld. “We have no plan on how to get from one song to the next,” McNew admits just before curtain. “We know where we’re going, we just don’t know how we’re going to get there.” But perhaps Yo La Tengo have found a way to make their ongoing journey, and all the possibilities it throws up, more important than where it might finally take them.