With a career spanning over three decades, cult icons Yo La Tengo are infallible veterans of the alternative music industry.
Thirteen albums in, the New Jersey indie-rock outfit have always been a reliable source of refreshingly well-textured music. Their latest release, Fade, which the trio was promoting at the Melbourne Festival, is arguably the most concise and brilliantly cohesive record they have ever produced.
Last Friday evening at Hamer Hall, Yo La Tengo attempted to showcase their new direction by going without a supporting act and instead, playing two very different sets. Initially forgoing percussion, they opened the night with a soothing, acoustic version of 'Ohm', the opening track from Fade. The resulting first set was gentle, quiet, full of whispers. The band, comprising Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, comfortably swapped instruments after almost every song, and appeared immensely relaxed on stage. From the hums of Kaplan's acoustic guitars to the legato sounds of Hubley's drum brushing, their subdued style and soft music was thoroughly pleasurable.
After playing 'Can't Forget' from their 1990 album Fakebook, Kaplan finally broke the silence. He playfully joked that the band did not come to Australia to perform a set but were instead, on a 'fact-finding mission' to discover who wrote the Skippy theme song. 'Honest Jack, anyone?' he teased. 'We're not going to continue playing unless someone tells us.' The audience laughed as McNew crossed his arms, mimicking his refusal to play as well.
'Never read Proust / Seems a little too long,' Kaplan next sang in the endearing 'Periodically Double or Triple'. The trio cruised through the heartbreaking 'Black Flowers' and then performed a medley of excellent songs from Fade, such as 'The Point of It', 'I'll Be Around' and 'Cornelia and Jane'; a composed, understated yet self-assured performance.
'Does no one here really know who wrote the Skippy theme song?' Kaplan continually teased, as the band collectively halted mid-way in a song. Someone shouted an answer, but his voice was indistinguishable. Kaplan quipped, 'You see...we can't understand your accents.' His charming banter made the audience feel at ease, as the band subsequently closed the set with more cosy lullabies.
At the end of the first set, Kaplan announced an intermission, saying the band would later return on stage to 'rock out'. And boy, did they. Now equipped with electric instruments, Yo La Tengo played a more fervent, frenzied rock set. From 'Is That Enough' to fan-favourite 'Sugarcube', the band possessed an unreserved and frantic energy while maintaining a solid stage presence.
In particular, Kaplan exhibited a kind of manic wildness in his performance. He hastily smashed his keyboard for a good few minutes in 'False Alarm', producing a slipshod jumble of clashing chords. Best of all, Kaplan messed with the almost-grating feedback with his signature guitar acrobatics. He physically thrust his battered red Fender, holding it over his head and swinging it back and forth. He looked like he was about to smash it, hinting that the band would collapse into an all-out aural pandemonium. More noise than music, and perhaps even partially self-indulgent, Kaplan was still absolutely fascinating to watch and his enthralling performance propelled the band forward in their rock set.
With their falsetto voices, Kaplan and McNew sang a 'Mr. Tough' duet from 2006's I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. After a louder reprising of 'Ohm', Kaplan admitted, 'I think we need some lullabies now'. With their encore, they breezed through a Brian Wilson cover and closed the night with 'My Little Corner of the World', which included a whistle solo by the band's roving tech. Hubley's hushed, alto voice echoed throughout the concert hall, as though coming full circle, returning to their first set of quieter sounds. It was an immensely satisfying way to end the night.
The Yo La Tengo live experience is fundamentally different from their recorded music, and to many other live performances by other bands. Through whispers and shrieks, the band exhibited a poised composure throughout. It is evident that the band undoubtedly enjoy the simple pleasures of playing together onstage, which makes their performance all the more remarkable.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
An Evening with Yo La Tengo
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall
Melbourne Festival 2013