An Evening With Yo La Tengo
As the show began, members of the indie rock group Yo La Tengo trickled on stage to play “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” from their latest album, This Stupid World, an already seven-and-a-half-minute song stretched even longer. The song’s brief percussive introduction became something closer to an entire drum solo. The vocals came in later than most fans in the audience may have been expecting, as each artist settled into their instrument. The band’s demeanor was casual—almost haphazard—but within the first five minutes of performing, you would think they had reached their blaring fever pitch. The short riffs that dominate the simplistic song were at first deafening, then distorted, then improvised almost beyond recognition, ultimately setting the tone for the rest of the show.
The sheer intensity of Yo La Tengo’s performance may be surprising to some, as the band has grown more than a few gray hairs since its founding in 1984; its original members, Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, are now well into their sixties. The indie rock band from New Jersey, in addition to the brash instrumentals of a live performance like this, has a diverse history of creative projects: they have worked on a delicate soundtrack for a series of undersea documentaries, collaborated with Yoko Ono, performed as a fictional cover band in the sitcom Parks and Recreation, and released a cover album of their songs. Most of the crowd consisted of seasoned fans wearing authentic vintage merchandise and steering clear of the rare few trying to headbang in front of the stage. But with over 15 albums and a dozen bassists in their discography, Yo La Tengo has something for everyone. At the 9:30 Club, the band played for over two hours and oscillated from softer, lyrically driven songs like “Can’t Forget” off of Fakebook to more crashing insanity, such as the titular song off their new album. In these loud, aggressive performances, the vocals faded to the background as two band members hammered the drums at once, or Kaplan kneeled over his guitar, laid flat on the ground, and strummed with a drum mallet.
Though the live performance was at times shocking in how much it varied from both the subdued recordings and the unassuming appearances of the band on stage, it perfectly embodied the creation of This Stupid World. The band first created the work instrumentally, so the lyrics for the album were an afterthought. Each band member served as a sort of jack of all trades, and the stage lineup was constantly in flux as people traded drums for vocals for the keyboard for the guitar. This, too, is a key part of the album. Conceived of and recorded during the latter days of the pandemic, Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew wrote, mixed, produced, and performed This Stupid World.
As talented and intense as Yo La Tengo may be, they are not without their sense of humor. At one point, Kaplan brought the entire venue to a dead halt to announce that the lyrics coming up, belonging to a song from 2009, may be too ‘politically incorrect’ for most audiences today. Some of the audience braced in anticipation while others laughed, and Kaplan apologized again before singing, “I never wear a helmet when I’m riding a bike.”
During the encore, audience members called out the greatest hits from the band’s long repertoire but proceeded to play three covers in a row instead. Though an unconventional choice, the band has a long history of successful (or at least fan-favorite) cover compilations, including Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, an album consisting solely of covers performed to fundraise for the independent radio channel WFMU. They closed their show with a rendition of George McCrae’s “You Can Have It All,” featured on their 2000 album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Yo La Tengo once again proves that they have the range to do just about anything despite never having achieved much mainstream success. Almost 40 years after their inception, they’re still selling out the 9:30 Club and scheduling international shows to give a new life to their seventeenth album and all the classics they’ve borne and murdered along the way.
Evelyn Blanchette is another English major in the College.