The prospect of seeing Yo La Tengo live initially feels less like something to get excited for but more like an indie-rock requirement. New Jersey’s finest rock band has been at it for over 20 years now, so even though I’d never gotten around to seeing them in person I still heard enough live show reports to play a Yo La Tengo concert out in my head. Nevertheless, I crawled out to Osaka’s Club Quattro on a weeknight to see the trio live and check off another “indie-rock must-do” from my list.
What I didn’t expect was the across-the-board awesomeness present Monday. Some credit goes to Club Quattro, a surprisingly intimate (considering it’s on top of a department store) type of venue the band rarely plays in America anymore. The Japanese fans also earn praise for being crazy enthusiastic for Yo La Tengo, spazzing out at every new, recognizable riff and sporting old tour shirts, a detail primary singer Ira Kaplan seemed genuinely tickled by. But the obvious most-of-all accolades go to the band itself, who did everything those old live write-ups said they would do but absolutely killed them all the same.
If you’ve listened to two Yo La Tengo albums, you should have a good idea what this band does best: they easily hop from feedback-powered freakouts to sad little ballads to lounge ditties, all while b ranching off into a hundred other directions along the way. The live show follows a similar formula, starting loud then becoming a little more pop before Georgia Hubley steps out from the drum kit to sing some songs then back to loud and finish things up with some cover songs during the encore. Yo La Tengo have so many signature songs to fill these slots that you’re pretty much guaranteed to see an old favorite or three.
The big new revelation? This year’s Popular Songs might be the band’s best since And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. At first Yo La Tengo’s 2009 effort sounded like just a solid collection of music with some long tracks tacked on the end. But live, it suddenly becomes clear – this is a great Yo La Tengo album because it’s a solid collection of music. They played nearly the entirety of Popular Songs (sans the two long songs at the ends) and each cut felt right at home snuggled up with classic Yo La Tengo. They showed confidence in the album by ripping into the nine-minute “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” early on, and the dreamy song didn’t disappoint as the audience swayed along for its entire run. The Quattro crowd never once felt like a group of people tolerating new music just to get to the classics – Yo La Tengo dropped the goofy “Periodically Double Or Triple” in between “Little Eyes” and “Beanbag Chair,” and it got the biggest response of the three.
As expected, the show highlighted all the band’s strengths. They turned otherwise straightforward rock songs into noise-battered experiments courtesy of Kaplan’s guitar manhandling (this man loves to abuse his instruments for the audience’s pleasure – he started punching his keyboard during “Periodically Double Or Triple”). They played it straight on well-known numbers like “Beanbag Chair” and “Sugarcube,” which drew the biggest roar of the night from the crowd. They even nailed down cutesy with the Motown influenced “If It’s True” and it’s Kaplan-Hubley back-and-forth vocals. And when Yo La Tengo got quiet, the results were stunning: Hubley added an extra note of melancholy to “Decora” and “Tears Are In Your Eyes,” the latter being a stripped-down acoustic take that was devastating and the show’s highlight.
And Yo La Tengo are so darn charming! Things never get to serious, as the group carries themselves with a sense of humor. Kaplan broke out all sorts of goofy dad poses during “Periodically Double Or Triple” that had the crowd rolling. Then there was “You Can Have It All” which saw the entire group break into choreographed dance complete with hula arms and turns. The banter was just as good, Kaplan cracking all sorts of jokes (while also more or less admitting the bass lead-in for “If It’s True” is taken from “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”) even if 85 percent of the audience didn’t get it (which is why the dancing was so important). Yo La Tengo even made rock cliche seem cool – they asked two folks at the front of the stage for a song suggestion then played it, a very sweet gesture assuming the band doesn’t use stage plans (never). Then, following the first “not remotely a surprise” encore, the group came out a second time due to the crowd’s support. And they huddled around and discussed what to play. It all rang as very genuine.
A Yo La Tengo show might be a very consistent affair, but it’s the type of concert that ends up being consistently excellent even after two hours. Few bands can pull off a feat like that, and Yo La Tengo show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Yes, you know what to expect after reading a review of their show. Yes, you should still go. And yes, this was the best show I’ve seen all year.