Yo La Tengo remain indie champions

By Mark Schiffer

Garth Brody/Collegian

The Academy of Music in Northampton was abuzz with music nerds and flannel-wearers this Wednesday, for longtime indie-rock favorites Yo La Tengo had come to town. Consisting of James McNew on bass and married couple Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan on drums and guitar respectively, this band played with all the warmth and energy that audiences have come to expect after over 25 years of performances.
Before they played, however, the ultimate mediocrity had to be endured. The opening band, called The Labor Pool, sounded like a moldy mixture of Built to Spill and Tom Petty. The lead singer of this band seemingly made a point of being cold to the audience, as they began the set with a rather terse request for cell phones not to be used by concert attendees. Their uninspired lyrical content was almost purely composed of bitter, divorce-centric confessionals, accentuated by some clearly well-intentioned guitar heroics. There seemed to be a very intentional lack of communication between the lead singer/rhythm guitarist and the rest of his band. Consequently, his band appeared to be as much his unwilling captives as the audience.
The band thankfully closed with “You and Me,” with Ira Kaplan as a guest on organ. Despite the continued prevalence of divorce-related lyrics, audiences were treated to taste of the delicious Yo La Tengo to come. After a brief set break, the headliner walked onstage to enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
True to their audience pleasing nature, Yo La Tengo began their set with the distinctly funky drum pattern from their biggest hit thus far, “Autumn Sweater.” Both James McNew and Georgia Hubley played drums, giving the song a deeper, more percussive bottom for Ira Kaplan to play his organ and sing over. In its live incarnation, it sounded even funkier and caused even more dance. Immediately after this, Yo La Tengo played one of their signature Sonic Youth-influenced improvisations. Thus, they introduced themselves as a flexible, dynamic musical machine, capable of performing both subdued pop songs and extended feedback-laden jams.
As the set went on, an emphasis seemed to be placed on playing songs off recent albums, specifically “Popular Songs” and “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.” The warbling ‘70s-esque electronics that begin “Here to Fall” off the former album signaled the swooping psychedelia that followed. Although it wasn’t all that different from the studio version in this performance, it still stands as one of the bands most tightly-contained pieces of rock music.
One revamp which stuck out strongly was the early performance of “Today is the Day,” off 2003’s “Summer Sun.” Although in its studio version it stands as a beautifully mellow pop song with swooning guitar parts and vocals sung by Georgia Hubley, live it was almost unrecognizable. Propelled by Ramones-like guitar and pounding drums, it was given a punky sheen that not only differentiated it from the studio version, but also gave it a new life.
Approximately halfway through the set, Georgia left the drums behind, and Ira directly addressed the audience. “Some bands, when they tour, like to act like they don’t know what city they are in. We aren’t like that, we know exactly where we are,” he stated. “It is time for our wooden set.” And, with that, the band began to play an intimate, drumless trio of songs which included an acoustic version of “Decora” off of 1995’s “Electr-o-Pura,” fan favorite “I’m On My Way” sung by bassist James McNew off “Popular Songs,” and this writer’s personal favorite “Black Flowers” from “Popular Songs.” During their final song, the band members sang with perfect harmony thus creating a sublime, beautiful moment.
As a contrast, the band followed up their “wooden set” with a trio of their power pop classics. “Tom Courtenay,” “Nothing to Hide” and “Sugarcube” all were performed with energy and precision. These songs have long been live favorites for Yo La Tengo, but it still felt surprising and fresh to hear them one by one in succession.
All too soon came the pre-encore closer, “I Heard You Looking.” As the closer to what could potentially be described as their most dramatic album, 1993’s “Painful,” it is unsurprising that this was chosen for the closer. Still, in this performance it existed as evidence that the band still plays with just as much energy, joy, and guts as they would have in years past. In a jam that was alternately gorgeous and abrasive, Ira spasmodically soloed over endless bass lines and pounding drums for over 15 minutes. They played with all the bravado of a 1991 college rock band, just hearing My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless” for the first time and realizing that this thing called shoegaze could mean something. And at the same time they played with all the maturity of their years, all the tightness that one could expect from this 25-year old band.
The crowd cheered forever. The standing ovation was endless. Fittingly, they came back out for two successive encores. They played a quick, energetic set of covers, the highlight of which would probably have to be Sun Ra’s doo-woppy “Somebody’s in Love.” Although slight, it left patrons with a perfect memory of the band, standing together at the edge of the stage and singing in perfect harmony.
Mark Schiffer can be reached at [email protected]