By Andrew Tanner. ‘You’d call them indie rock royalty if it wasn’t such a patently ridiculous phrase.’
AN EVENING WITH YO LA TENGO – Hamer Hall, Melbourne October 18
Is ‘reliably surprising’ an oxymoron? It would be hard to name another act who’ve been performing and recording regularly for nigh on 30 years that have maintained the high standard output of Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo. You’d call them indie rock royalty if it wasn’t such a patently ridiculous phrase.
An Evening With Yo La Tengo placed them in the classic music den of Hamer Hall for the Melbourne Festival, and the night was a display of everything that’s kept them atop of their game for that extraordinary run. The performance was divided into two sets: the first composed of breathless intimate acoustic songs that featured sugar spun harmonies and impeccable brushwork. The second was an electric set anchored in rock solid grooves and topped by squalls of skronking psych guitar workouts.
The trio (husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley together with James McNew) have a ninja like ability to group and regroup according to the demands of each song. Hubley and McNew in particular switch fluidly between drums, bass, guitar & keys, with a consistent philosophy of playing everything that’s needed, and nothing that ain’t. Any musician who blandly intones the cliché that it’s ‘all about the song, man’ would have received on this night an illuminating object lesson in what that actually meant. Kaplan meanwhile majors in the afore-mentioned guitar explorations (notably in ‘Blue Line Swinger’ and the garage rocking ‘Sugarcube’) and some cameo karate chopping organ blasts during ‘Sudden Organ’ (from 1993’s Painful).
‘Ohm’ (from their most recent album Fade) opened the acoustic set (reappearing later in the evening in electric mode) and set a hushed, contemplative vibe. It was all close mike vocals and unhurried guitar lines, a chance to soak up the sweetness that lies at the heart of many YLT tracks. ‘Big Day Coming’ spotlighted Hubley’s vocals, while Ray Davies’ ‘Better Things’ continued the band’s famous tradition of covering a head spinning diversity of pop’s back catalogue. Pop sensibilities were also to the fore during ‘Mr Tough’, a piano based stomp that Ben Folds wishes he’d written.
A minor criticism was the sound mix during the electric set. Sonic mayhem doesn’t have to mean indistinct or blurry, and from where we were sitting (13 rows back, stage right) the sound during some of the second set was a little icy and indistinct. As a fan of the immersive wall of sound YLT put out, I missed some of the enveloping warmth that typifies their best.
Recently Kaplan remarked at an arts college talk that ‘our philosophy (as a band) was “try something that you almost know how to do”’. That to me is the gem that lies at the heart of this band. Their r’n’b isn’t quite r’n’b. Their Motown is a little off, in a good way. Their acoustic songs never fall into neat Americana/nu folk categories. Their songs – loud, soft, pop or punky – are informed by a universe of great music, yet never ape styles or sounds. They are at the end Yo La Tengo songs – and we’re all the better for having them.
Yo La Tengo is a Spanish phrase meaning ‘I’ve got it’ (as in the sense of someone running to catch a skied ball in a cricket match). After Friday night, one can only add gratefully ‘yes you do’.