Yo La Tengo Has It!

Review by Jackie, Photos by Skylar Heyvald

“This crowd is very mellow. This crowd would like Radiohead.” —Concerningly Drunk Father

For their Wednesday, February 22nd show at The Fillmore, Yo La Tengo’s set was broken into two acts, with a roughly 20 minute intermission nestled in between. The tour was to promote the release of their 17th studio album This Stupid World. Interestingly enough, there was no opener, which I could take or leave. As the concert began, everyone in Carhartt beanies was settling in from the cold, ready to be swept away by the sweet, sensual stylings of harsh noise, mic feedback and cable twisting.

The first act consisted of their more relaxed, indie material, which I, after their fourth song, wrote down “would definitely be better if I were high.”  The music within this set was very introspective and scenic, with guitarist Ira Kaplan and bassist James McNew’s string-plucking sounding like never-ending ripples in a pool. The closest I could compare this to would be Pink Floyd’s acoustic work (think Meddle). My favorite song from this set that they played would have to be a cover of Snapper’s “Gentle Hour,” in which McNew sang. McNew’s performance was quite gentle and romantic, and I found myself wanting to send this song to a loved one — which I should probably go do. In fairness, my favorite original song from this set would have to be “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” a noisy track from their newest album, as Kaplan’s guitar playing was what I thought to be the most riveting part about the whole concert — more on that later.

Despite the age gap between me and everyone else in the room, I can take solace in the fact that our one uniting factor was that our backs all probably hurt just the same from standing around and doing nothing. The music within the first set was nice, but there were multiple times in which the songs would build and ultimately lead to no catharsis. The songs were emotive and contemplative, but there are ways to build to a rewarding climax without having to scream and shout for it. For example, during the final song, “The Story of Yo La Tengo,” Kaplan manages to give us a gratifying finish. Each time I thought the music was building to a satisfactory conclusion, it would suddenly end.

It was during the second set when things really started to pick up. My associate and I were concerned about whether or not to stay for the full set, as there is only so much indie one can withstand before it all blends together. We were quickly drawn back in as the set got progressively heavier and heavier. While the first half of the concert felt lacking in resolution and excitement, the alt-rock of the second half quickly made up for it. The 11th and 12th songs, “Here to Fall” and “From a Motel 6,” took me from planet Earth to Alien-Land as the instruments began to take on properties unorthodox to normal, terrestrial sound. There was a part in “From Motel 6” that had my jaw hanging wide open, with Kaplan’s guitar sending radio and satellite signals straight into my very being. To the crowd’s obvious delight, YLT covered the Grateful Dead’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” We’re in San Francisco, after all. Regretfully unfamiliar with the tune, I assumed this was the one YLT hit that everyone else but me knew due to the amount of people singing along. I was perfectly willing to accept this, which I just think goes to show the capability YLT has to play a wide variety of genres— from indie, to alt, and to folk. “False Alarm” was another favorite, as it had felt like a bomb had riveted throughout the entire theater.

As a group, YLT clearly have a lot of trust within one another. They showed a strong capability to work as a coherent unit. I would love to grab a drink with them, but I would hate to feel like a fourth wheel — that’s how in sync they were with one another. They demonstrated mastery over not just their own instruments, but each other's as well, as there were multiple switch-ups within the concert. Georgia Hubley would suddenly rotate from drums, to guitar, to keys, as did Kaplan and McNew. There was a moment during the concert where Kaplan would stand fully and get out from behind his keyboard, walk to hit the snare, and then walk back and sit down. This happened at least three times. It’s good to know that he is getting his steps in.

It was on guitar where Kaplan really shone. Throughout the entire concert, in both indie and alt-rock sections, Kaplan pushed his guitar to the limit. Screaming, bleating, and shrieking, Kaplan demonstrated a sharp command over his instrument. There were multiple times in “The Story of Yo La Tengo” where I feared he would smash his guitar, but he simply needed to hold it high above his head to get the best possible sound out of his weapon of choice. Whenever Kaplan felt the need to stretch his guitar’s capabilities to their limits, it was always the most engaging sight on stage — hunched over, putting his full weight into his strings. Kaplan had put his entire weight into playing his guitar so much that he was no longer gazing at his shoes but fully gazing at the dirt, ants, and masking tape residue on the Fillmore stage. And that’s how you sell a performance!

One of the most impactful aspects of the show was the lighting design. The contrast between the blue ambiance of the room and the orange glow over the individual band members created a cozy atmosphere that only further supported the warmth and tenderness of the band’s music. Both tone and narrative wise, the lighting told a story as much as the music did. For example, during “Gentle Hour,” the lighting crew was trying to implant subliminal messages into the minds of the audience by clearly planting a magenta, heart-shaped display. They wanted everyone in the audience to cradle their significant others tenderly! I cannot be fooled! There were periods where the dynamic lighting patterns, as they moved towards the back of the theater, made me feel as if the whole room was spinning. Maybe this sense of dizziness would have been not-so-good while high.

Holistically, I was incredibly impressed by Yo La Tengo’s live musical talent, creative thinking, and experienced ability to cooperate with one another. I was much more inclined to the second, more rocking set than the first, more subdued indie set. Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew all had a great stage presence without having to over-exaggerate their movements and performance. The music itself felt very personal and authentic. Despite having to go deep into San Francisco on a Wednesday night, I would say the concert was ultimately worth the trek.

And, in case you were wondering, they did not play “Autumn Sweater.”