Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13

Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Yo La Tengo
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Monday, February 4, 2013

New Jersey indie rock pioneers Yo La Tengo's performance Monday at First Avenue had a very "ripped from the headlines" feel. It's unusual for the prima donna rock star to acknowledge that anything else in the world is happening the night of one of their shows, but modest-spoken Ira Kaplan was more than happy to crack wise about being in Minneapolis the same day as Barack Obama. "I want to thank you for coming here," he said. "You could've gone to the ball game across the street, or gone to cheer the president."

Kaplan made that statement while he was still seated on a stool for the more staid of two sets the evening had to offer. Later on, he theatrically choked lengthy passages of feedback out of his guitar and swung his body through so many exaggerated poses, it almost felt like he was compensating for not being the U.S. chief of staff. 

See Also:
Slideshow: Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Yo La Tengo biographer shares the band's not-so-lurid secrets

But these outside details mattered little to the quietly fervent crowd. Kaplan, drummer first lady Georgia Hubley, and secretary of bass James McNew built up a night to be cherished in local Yo La Tengo lore by forgoing an opener, playing a quiet set followed by a distinctively louder one, and notching about three hours onstage.

"Nothing ever stays the same," they sang together on a delicate take on "Ohm" the standout track from their two-week-old Fade. ("The statute of limitations on calling it new hasn't run out yet," Kaplan noted.) Lined up straight across the front of the stage, they played almost daintily on a dim set with a trio of cut-out wooden trees behind them, and pulled the almost silent audience crowd closer to catch every detail.

Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Photos by Erik Hess

And that "Ohm" lyric proved to be the theme of the night in big ways and small as nearly every song had a slightly different configuration, and Kaplan kept his guitar tech busy with requests for new guitars. With "Two Trains," a gauzy, slow beach jam, the excited tension in the room ratcheted up even further as Hubley displayed her cool, breathy pipes as snow fell outside.

"We played this song in the Entry in '85 when we were opening for Soul Asylum," Kaplan said jovially to introduce Fakebook original "Did I Tell You." And Hubley caught him, "Eh, I think it was later..." No matter, as they settled into mellow version -- Kaplan singing intimately and Hubley with brushes on her drums. Continuing on a less-traveled path, the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack rarity "Demons" reverberated next, and reminded us that Hubley sings with far more range of expression than Nico ever could. Next, the psychedelic new track "The Point of It" was one of the understated pleasures of the entire evening.

By this point, the crowd's ingested liquor was starting to take effect. They stayed generally polite, but each break between a quiet number to follow was punctuated by more yells than the one before it. YLT stayed focused, and eased into two more from the delicious Fade -- the gorgeous winter beauty "Cornelia and Jane," and then the droning, Nick Drake-ish "I'll Be Around."

"We're going to do a couple more, do some housekeeping, and play some more," Kaplan said genially. Then, a drunken fan tried to get McNew's attention and got the response, "I'm kinda doing something right now." And what they did was wrap the set with the swelling 1995's "Tom Courtnenay" and folkies rejoiced as McNew closed things out singing lead powerfully on "Black Flowers," one of the choicest I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass standouts.
When the band returned, there was far more room onstage, and immediately a more electric feel to the proceedings. Yo La Tengo slowly built up momentum with the krautrock-y "Stupid Things" and began what would be a barrage of lengthy solo passages from Kaplan. In this case, on the noodle-draped end of the spectrum. A squalling, low roar rose next as they revamped the Summer Sun-era relaxant "Today is the Day" into a fuzz-ridden riot. More intense convulsing from Kaplan came with it, and with his electric guitar slung low, he transformed into a tantrum-like state for several minutes.

McNew's hypnotic rising and falling action on his bass encited cheers for "Moby Octopad," and the place really erupted for the first of several times for the rest of the set. For many, 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One was when Yo La Tengo became a dynasty, and this mix of doo-wop lyricism and that nasty-ass organ solo has aged extremely well. "Is That Enough" was jarring for its simplicity in rock chord strumming to follow, but no momentum was lost for another I Can Hear staple, the gaze-y "Autumn Sweater," which brought out Kaplan's vocal gifts as he toyed with the words, forming them differently in his mouth each time.

Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Photos by Erik Hess

"Big Day Coming" brought each member of the group to turn up the amps, and then the night just gave way to a load of noise and as much grandstanding as they could tolerate in themselves. It's likely that Kaplan sang "Let's wake up the neighbors," but it was impossible to tell with the din pouring out from onstage. He even grabbed a second guitar mid-song to lay waste to. When finished, he rewarded himself with a slug of beer.  

If there were any criticism to levy against Yo La Tengo during this night of many pleasures, it would be that Fade closer "Before We Run" sounded naked without the album's gorgeous orchestral backing. Well, if you can't have a trombone, you might as well get a lengthy noise passage, right? "Ohm" returned as a "plugged-in" reprise next, and then a ragged "From a Motel 6" loaded with whammy bar punctuations.

And then, to the delight of many, the second set closed out with a 20-minute, Goliath-sized version of "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." Needless to say, the temptation to employ Townshend and Van Halen-esque tactics was too much for Kaplan. While McNew and Hubley kept time patiently, trippy projections dancing all over the stage, the frontman had his shirt tails flopping the wake of his instrument abuse. It could've gone on three times as long and not been long enough, and they left the stage to a cavalcade of appreciation.

To start the encore, Kaplan commented first on the "minus 100 outside" temparature and that they were from "the balmy Northeast" before launching into a song that they weren't going to play, a deconstructed version of the fuzz-laden "Cherry Chapstick." Hearing it acoustically is hearing it anew, and it proved for the umpteenth time that evening that an original arrangement is only one way of many to skin a song.
After a time machine trip back to "Lewis," Kaplan got serious and said the band would be remiss to not toast the Troggs' frontman Reg Presley, whose passing was announced earlier that day. Doing so, they first broke out a Condo Fucks rocker "With a Girl Like You" (originally recorded by the Troggs) and then brought up a couple friends to play one one of "the dwindling number of songs we've never played, the Troggs' classic hit "Wild Thing." It was equal parts raw and reverent.

Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Yo La Tengo at First Avenue, 2/4/13
Photos by Erik Hess

And though they could've called it a night, two more acoustic Fakebook cover tunes, "Tried So Hard" and "Griselda" came for the second encore. Even with a slightly diminished crowd, these final moments felt as powerful as any of the voracious melodies of earlier in the night. With fragility and grace, Kaplan and Hubley shared the vocals with love for the songs' original creators. And leaving us with the image of an old lady moon was about perfect. "We were really hoping that the president was gonna come tonight," Kaplan said wryly before they left the stage. "But you've been so nice that we don't even miss him."

Critic's Notebook

Overheard: "Yo La Tengo's been doing this for my whole life." "You probably wouldn't like Die Antwoord." "I think the singer from Fun. was wearing a basketball jersey, but I don't really remember."

The Crowd: Quiet, reverent, and bespectacled.

Personal Bias: Ira Kaplan gives a great interview, and he said nice things about it after the fact. Also, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is in my top five.

Set 1:
Two Trains
Did I Tell You
The Point Of It
Cornelia And Jane
I'll Be Around
Tom Courtenay
Black Flowers

Set 2:
Stupid Things
Today Is The Day
Moby Octopad
Is That Enough
Autumn Sweater
Big Day Coming
Before We Run
From A Motel 6
Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind

Cherry Chapstick
With A Girl Like You (Condo Fucks)
Wild Thing (The Troggs)

2nd Encore:
Tried So Hard (Gene Clark)
Griselda (Holy Modal Rounders)

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