Concert Review: Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, March 28th, 2018

Ira looks sad.

That was one of my wife’s comments after leaving the Yo La Tengo concert the other evening. And she’s right—Ira did look sad. At least, during the first half of the band’s set he did.

We decided, as we merged onto the freeway to get back home, that maybe he wasn’t sad, but he was just really concentrating.

It doesn’t seem like it’s hard, or difficult, or whatever, being a member of Yo La Tengo, but this time around, touring in support of their moderately experimental and rather moody new album There’s A Riot Going On, it appears like it requires a lot of concentration, precision, and confidence to more or less recreate those songs, and their dense atmospherics, in a live setting.

Relying on myriad devices on stage at First Avenue, including samplers and looping pedals, among other things, and relying on an unspoken trust that the audience would be patient with where things would eventually go, Yo La Tengo, now in their 34th year, brought two very distinct, nine and ten song sets to life on Wednesday, March 28th, during the first date of their 2018 tour.

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I’ve written about this somewhat extensively in the past, but for me, going to a concert is incredibly difficult. It more than likely always was, even when I was younger, but due to how severe my debilitating anxiety has gotten, as well as a number of other reasons, it seems like it takes a Herculean effort by all parties involved to get me out of the house, in the car, and in the venue.

Getting me out of the house for a show on a school night also seems like it took a little bit more work, because I was most definitely up beyond my bedtime, and paid for it with how awful I felt all day Thursday, and part of Friday as well.

I stop short of saying that, for my wife Wendy and I, Yo La Tengo is ‘our’ band—but they have wound up meaning a lot to us over the course of our relationship. The music listening in our household, generally speaking, is a little one-sided—meaning, I will play something, and unless it is really obnoxious, my wife kind of just tolerates it, or feigns interest. It’s very rare that we find something that both of us genuinely enjoy the same amount, but somehow, Yo La Tengo became one of those bands to us.

A year after its release, in 2007 I glommed on to their charmingly titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and the LP received quite a bit of play in our first apartment together. In 2009, when we got married, we chose “Black Flowers,” as our first dance, and leading up to that, we had spent the summer listening to a leaked copy of Popular Songs, long before it was officially released. 
We saw the band then, in October 2009, while they were touring in support of Popular Songs. If I recall correctly, the set favored new material, and it concluded with an unhinged version of the epic “Blue Line Swinger.” Somewhere in the second half, much to our surprise, they played a paired down version of “Black Flowers,” with Ira Kaplan introducing it by saying, “Here’s one we don’t bust out very often.”

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On the road without any opening act, the There’s A Riot Going On tour is dubbed as ‘An Evening With Yo La Tengo,’ with the band playing two different roughly hour-long sets. I hesitate to call the first hour ‘acoustic,’ because that’s simply not true—it was comprised mostly of material from the new record, so it was relatively restrained and introspective. Playing five songs from Riot, the band also included four stripped down and rearranged older songs, including “Nowhere Near” from 1993’s Painful, and the moderately obscure “Alyda” from President Yo La Tengo, one of the band’s earliest records.

After a short intermission and a slow burning opening to the second half with the atmospheric “Dream Dream Away,” the second set was ‘nothing but the hits,’ as the band tore through raucous fan favorites like “Sudden Organ,” “Double Dare,” “Decora,” and “Sugarcube,” before closing with a lengthy and volatile version of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.”

For a band with such a diverse repertoire, and with such an expansive canon of material, the ‘evening with’ conceit, and two distinct sets, really lent itself well, giving the band time to ease into its louder, frenetic material, as well as giving the audience time to really appreciate everything the trio is capable of, because really, if you think of it, there are three pretty specific facets to Yo La Tengo: the introspective, the whimsical, and the loud—and working with two specific sets allowed room for all three of those.

While the introspective and the loud were kept mostly separated, it was the whimsical that bled through into both portions of the evening. The band did not banter with the crowd very much, but when they did, it was good natured and full of deadpan humor, with the crowd chuckling at the subtly of Ira getting up from his keyboard to hit a cymbal once, and walk back across the stage a number of times during “Ashes,” as well as the earnest ‘shoo wah shoo wah’s that peppered “Forever.”

During the second half, a relatively loose version of the jaunty single “Mr. Tough,” from I Am Not Afraid Of You, lodged in the halfway point of the set, also provided a moment of light hearted fun before the group launched into the noisy and at times dissonant conclusion to their performance.

Watching the band’s dynamic on stage during both sets was a fascinating experience. Yes, Ira Kaplan looked sad as he hunched over his massive pedal board during the moody, instrumental opening song, “You Are Here,” but I presume he was focusing intently on creating the right tones and looping things at the correct time. The band’s bassist, James McNew, also had a look of focus throughout much of the set, but it was less ‘sad’ looking and more of a ‘man I hope I don’t fuck this up’ kind of extreme concentration. McNew not only handles the bass, but also additional guitar playing, organ, and other gadgetry from his corner of the stage.

Georgia Hubley, one of rock’s most underrated drummers I think, spent more time in front of her kit during the first set—wandering out toward the front of the stage to either sing front and center, or assist with the organs and gadgetry. The second half of the show allowed Hubley to show her prowess as a percussionist and vocalist during the sprawling “Before We Run,” the fan favorite “Decora,” and the rollicking new track, “Shades of Blue.” She also was able to hold her own and keep time during “Pass The Hatchet,” which is certainly not an easy task.

It also seems worth mentioning that, outside from the keyboard and guitar, Ira Kaplan plays feedback and dissonance like an instrument, which is something I’d forgotten about from the first time we saw them live, nearly ten years ago, and it’s also not something you really consider when sitting in your home, listening to the recordings.

You can’t help but watch in awe as Kaplan practically destroys guitars on stage, swinging them around and bending them toward his twin amplifiers in order to get just the right tone of feedback for the moment. At one point during “Pass the Hatchet,” he flipped his worn Fender Stratocaster over and started rubbing the strings and pick-ups across his jeans before de-tuning it completely and needing his guitar tech (probably a stressful job to have) to hand him another axe to continue the song.

Throughout both sets, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew display a tightness and trust that only comes from playing together for over 25 years, with the group giving knowing glances across the stage to one another, and having the skill and endurance to power through during moments that seem so effortlessly improvised.

Sonically, shows at First Avenue can be hit or miss at times—vocals are especially hard to mix in the room, and I recall during the band’s 2009 set there were some volume issues with things being just too low. The band’s first nine songs sounded incredible, with nothing overpowering anything else. The second set, steeped in some of the band’s loudest and popular singles like “Double Dare” and “Sugarcube,” were a little harder to mix properly, with Kaplan’s vocals getting buried on occasion.

Tickets for Yo La Tengo’s show went on sale in 2017, long before they had even announced a new record, or what the new record would be like, tonally speaking. I didn’t dislike There’s A Riot Going On, but it’s not the group’s most accessible effort (on par with And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out), and I was a little uncertain of how the new material would translate in a live setting. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how the Riot material worked, and hearing it performed in concert helped me appreciate it a little bit more—also, buying the LP at the show helped as well, since listening to an album on the computer can only take you so far sometimes.

Yo La Tengo aren’t exactly a mainstream band but they are successful enough to continue putting records out on an independent label (though Matador is a bit of a powerhouse in the indie realm); while it wasn’t sold out, there was a sizeable crowd gathered on a Wednesday night to hear them. A band that could be called critical darlings, or at least, a critic’s band, Yo La Tengo are often called reliable—the Pitchfork write up of There’s A Riot Going On called them the ‘comforting cornerstone’ of indie rock music. I feel like their reliability may not be a tragic flaw or Achilles’ Heel, but it also may lead some listeners to take them for granted. They’re all getting older—Kaplan is over 60 now, and after 34 years running, you have to wonder how much time the band has left in them to continue recording, and touring in support.

While yes they can be comforting cornerstones, they are also a band that should be appreciated, and seeing them in a live setting certainly helps reinforce that notion.


You Are Here, Forever, One PM Again, Ashes, She May She Might, Alyda, I'll Be Around, Nowhere Near, Here You Are. (break) Dream Dream Away, Sudden Organ, Before We Run, For You Too, Shades of Blue, Mr. Tough, Double Dare, Decora, Sugarcube, Pass The Hatchet I Think I'm Goodkind.

(encores that we didn't stick around for) Bad Politics, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Our Way to Fall.