Review: Yo La Tengo

(Above: Yo La Tengo tear into “Sugarcube.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Almost an hour into Yo La Tengo’s show Tuesday night at the Granada Theater, a fan asked how long the band had been together. The choices presented were 12, 13 or 14 years or longer.

Singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan quickly set the record straight: “I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that this is our 26th year of rocking,” he said. “And I know a lot of you are similarly looking forward to your 26th birthday.”

The indie-rock trio from Hoboken, N.J., is not only a case study in longevity, but consistency. Its set exceeded two hours and touched on all facets of the band’s career, from a whisper-soft reading “Speeding Motorcycle,” one of the band’s earliest “hits,” to bright, up-tempo new song “Nothing To Hide.”

The opening number showcased the two facets of Yo La Tengo’s personality. “We’re an American Band,” was not a Grand Funk cover, but a 10-minute, laid-back drone. Kaplan’s sweet falsetto vocals were countered by his sudden guitar spasms, creating something like an abrasive lullaby.

The rest of the night swung between those two poles. A spacey reading of “Little Eyes” drew big cheers. Drummer Georgia Hubley (Kaplan’s wife) took over vocal duties. Kaplan’s guitar had a flat tone and was buried in the mix, making it feel like the song was floating out of a distant radio.
Other early highlights included the jaunty “Mr. Tough,” which had some people dancing. “I’m On My Way,” another new song, featured bass player James McNew on lead vocals and Hubley on acoustic guitar.

The mellow, dreamy soundscape was punctured by the ferocious drums and guitar that introduced a raucous “Sugarcube.” The energy from that number carried into “More Stars From Heaven,” that slowly built in intensity until reaching a blissful crescendo after nearly 10 minutes.

While Yo La Tengo knows how to nurse a mood, the instrumental “I Heard You Looking” was a tour de force. With Hubley and McNew holding down the groove, Kaplan battered and molested his guitar for nearly 20 minutes. Jumping in the air while strumming, and swinging the instrument by its neck, Kaplan did everything he could to coax out new sounds. When his guitar strap broke, Kaplan kept on playing, using the experience to add new texture to his strumming.

After surveying their catalog, the band turned to their influences during the encore sets. A fun garage rock cover of the Small Faces’ “What Cha Gonna Do” and a goofy duet of “It’s OK, I’m Alright” with opening band Times New Viking showed the trio’s sense of humor. While the crowd didn’t get the band’s oft-requested cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” the night closed with another Ra cover.

Nearly two hours after taking the stage, Yo La Tengo surprised everyone by returning for a second encore. After playing a stripped down version of “Big Day Coming,” that found Hubley replacing Kaplan on lead vocals, the trio broke out some doo-wop on Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love.” Although the house wasn’t sold out, it was comforting to know the band could, and would, come back and do this again anytime they wanted.

Setlist: We’re An American Band, All Your Secrets, Periodically Double or Triple, Avalon or Someone Very Similar, Little Eyes, Here To Fall, If It’s True, Mr. Tough, I’m On My Way, Don’t Say, Tom Courtenay, Sugarcube, More Stars Than There Are In Heaven, The Story of Jazz, Nothing To Hide, I Heard You Looking. Encore: It’s OK, I’m Alright (with Times New Viking), Stockholm Syndrome, What Cha Gonna Do (Small Faces cover), Speeding Motorcycle; Big Day Coming (acoustic), Somebody’s In Love (Sun Ra cover).