Yo La Tengo graced the stage of Chicago’s Vic Theatre on October 5, 2006. This was a clutch event for a venue that only occasionally brings in such respectable bands. Anyone who saw the group perform in July at the Pitchfork Music Festival might have been worried going into this show. Unfortunately, that performance was plagued with technical issues (their playing faded in an out, and sound bled in from the other two stages). A dedicated fan gave them the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that their craft would be better suited for an indoor theatre. Luckily an opportunity to witness such an occurrence wasn’t far away, and those same fans wouldn’t be let down. The audience at the Vic was filled with people in their upper 20s, many of whom seemed to approach the concert as more of a gallery exhibit than a rock show. There were hardly any of Chicago’s typical hipsters in the crowd. The stage was bare of any decorations – only the drums, keyboards, and stage speakers could be seen. This choice left it completely to the band to entertain. The band looked like they had vanished into a New Jersey basement sometime around 1986, only to emerge twenty years later to an underground music world that has changed a dozen times. With Ira Kaplan in jeans and red Converse sneakers, Georgia Hubley in long-sleeved striped tee, and James McNew in plaid, the attention was further placed on the music.
They quickly established their foundation of Beach Boys and Velvet Underground influences, with obvious connections to bands like Sonic Youth who also emerged in the late ’80s. The show had a pleasant flow, alternating between quiet droning songs and riotous noise. On top of that, the band approached their live performance like a work of art. They talked infrequently, and instead concentrated on the minute details of their presentation. The band emphasized songs from their new Matador release, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, but played a variety spanning their entire catalog. On “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” McNew thumped out his “one-two one-three one-two” bassline while Kaplan performed a sort of interpretive guitar dance – abandoning any conventional methods of playing. He pounded his whammy bar and flailed around, trying to extract whatever new noise he could. The result was phenomenal, and brought to mind what most people today can only witness on a Jimi Hendrix DVD. And this was only the second song of the concert.
The band showed the softer side of their current ass-beating campaign with songs like “Mr. Tough,” which bounced with a youthful quality like the Charlie Brown theme song. Hearing the indie pop of “Stockholm Syndrome” played with such sincerity was truly fulfilling after hearing it for so many years only on their 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It’s always impressive to see band members play various instruments, especially when they take on each other’s regular roles. The usual arrangement was Kaplan on guitar, McNew on bass, and Hubley on drums. But they changed up often, especially when Kaplan would man the keyboards. All three members had near equal singing duties, an amazing fact considering the inability of most bands to secure a single reputable vocalist.
Yo La Tengo’s sound is one of a band who has completely discarded any hopes of being cool, and still blows most acclaimed bands out of the water – that means anyone on MTV or radio, but also indie critic gems that are given too much credit. They are also the ultimate indie band for staying with Matador throughout the years. They will never expect the music business to cater to them, but they discover artistic awards most bands will never know. The show was intimate, as if each member of the audience was hanging out in a living room with the band. Furthermore, a live show unveils new dimensions in their music instead of constraining the band. This is partly due to the lack of electronics that are so rampant in many currently performing bands. Where Yo La Tengo really succeeds is taking their few main musical influences, combining them with any inspiration they gather, and creating music with integrity and meaning. They prove in a single sitting that there’s still some joy and wonder left in the world. The problem for most is that the joy is extremely hard to find, because it lies so deep inside. But as long as Kaplan and company keep mining that existential gold, they will hold their high seat as one of the America’s greatest independent rock artists.
By Nick Meador