Yo La Tengo
The Barbican, London
20 March 2013
Life affirming joy from a band that have endured more than most.
Yo La Tengo come on stage in front of three green trees. Somewhat appropriate as the first night of the UK tour falls on the first day of spring and there are trees on the cover of their new LP ‘Fade’ too.
Tonight’s show is in two parts. The first is the acoustic half of the set but its not really completely acoustic and it feels more like a humid summer night than early spring. It’s a feeling that’s a real relief in the middle of an inclement London March and there is tremendous warmth to everything Yo La Tengo do live as well as on record.
The band work tracks from the new LP in with older stuff from ‘Painful’ and ‘Electr-o-pura’. But its some reworkings that they first displayed on career spanning compilation ‘Prisoners of Love’ that shine here. A stripped down ‘Tom Courtney’ with Georgia Hubley on vocals gets a massive cheer and shows the bands capacity to reinterpret themselves, taking back the layers of sound to reveal the song’s tender core.
Ira Kaplan tells us he’s been watching old Johnny Cash footage on TV where the man in black does a clearly rehearsed bit inviting June Carter to the stage saying it’s his favourite part of the show. “Well this is my favourite bit of the show. Georgia’s gonna sing this one.” It’s a really touching moment and is testament to the longevity of this great band.
Almost 30 years into a prolific career with the same line-up of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and (since the early ’90s) James McNew, it really is an interdependent band. Each member knows how to play off the other two so well and you cant really imagine solo renditions of these songs working at all, but played with these three swapping instruments they’re just right.
We overheard one of the ushers on the way in tonight saying she was worried it would be a bit loud, “it’s a hard rock band apparently”. Well, hardness is relative.
Compared to the first half you could certainly make a case for part 2 as ‘Hard(er) Rock’ but whether they are lightly shimmering, droning or even freaking out, Yo La Tengo always have an immense and beautiful texture to everything that they do.
That goes for the records as well as their live shows. As well as the taught but tender atmosphere of songs like ‘Damage’ there are distorted and fragmented guitar work outs. In fact the versatility and ability to morph is confirmed by new LP Fade’s opening track ‘Ohm’ being softly played in the first half and then amped up in the second.
Along with some more vocal members of the crowd we play a game of guess the setlist. “Sugarcube next”, says Mark, my trusty companion for the evening. “How do you know?”, I say. “James on the keyboards with maracas it’s gonna be Sugarcube “. And so it proves to be and it sounds as good as it did on first listen some 15 years ago.
Ira Kaplan also knows more about how to play with feedback than probably any other living human and tonight he wields several guitars harnessing their different dynamics. Moving like he’s fighting an invisible magnetic force at one point he’s windmilling and twisting a Stratocaster over his head. And it’s no mere squall of senseless volume, it sounds precise, deliberate and just bloody fantastic.
“We can’t play in London without doing a song from this city”, says Ira, before grabbing an extra snare and joining Georgia behind the drum kit while James grabs a guitar and takes center stage for a cover of Adam and The Ants’ Ant Music. The rapturous applause and standing ovations from the packed crowd has meant we are treated to two encores the first including a sad and timeless cover of Take Care from Big Star’s Third / Sister Lovers album. Yo La Tengo then leave us with another classic of their own, Our Way to Fall from their millennial masterpiece …And then nothing turned itself inside out.
From delicate percussion to pulverising feedback you get the full sonic spectrum with Yo La Tengo. They’ve endured like few bands can and there are few life affirming joys like seeing them in full affect in a venue like the Barbican.
Image by Ben Boyer.