Yo La Tengo played the Paradise – 2/13

Indie rock legends Yo La Tengo put their genre-spanning mastery on display in a two-set performance at the readily sold-out Paradise this week.

Yo La Tengo are an indisputable rock institution. Formed in 1984 and existing as the same trio lineup of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew since 1992, the band has crafted one of the most consistently engaging and fascinating discographies imaginable. From the scrappy rock of President Yo La Tengo to the shoegaze vibes of Painful, the kitchen-sink variety of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and the hushed meditations of this year’s Fade, you’d be hard-pressed to find a genre of music made with guitars, keyboards and drums that Yo La Tengo hasn’t successfully tackled at some point. The band’s constant reshaping and reinvention have served them exceedingly well, making stunning career-spanning performances like this one a reality night after night.

Dividing the evening between acoustic and electric sets wouldn’t be entirely accurate, as their was plenty of electricity in use during part one, but it certainly gets at the spirit of the double set approach. Kaplan, Hubley and McNew took the stage promptly at 8:30 and immediately launched into a minimalist reworking of Fade opener “Ohm.” The song’s vocal harmonies, brushed percussion and quietly mesmerizing guitars set the tone for the first collection of songs, which tended toward the pensive and subdued end of the group’s spectrum. With the band seated at the very front of the Paradise’s rather low stage, this first set took on the intimate atmosphere of a living room show (or one at a much smaller club, at least). The packed-in audience offered their rapt attention, watching in totally silent reverence even when the band reached for newer or more obscure material.

That sort of respect is rarely afforded to a band by an entire thousand-strong crowd, but Yo La Tengo have clearly earned it from their dedicated fan base. In turn, the band was relaxed and friendly on stage. Kaplan recalled last playing the Paradise in the early 90s and McNew, who had watched the set as a non-band member, playfully corrected a misremembered setlist. All three band members have an evident, easygoing chemistry in both both banter and performance that stems from many years of collaboration (and, for Hubley and Kaplan, marriage). They are all talented multi-instrumentalists who understand how to play to each other’s strengths, whether they’re engaged with whispered acoustic ballads or raging noise-rock endurance tests.

Whatever the evening’s first set lacked in volume was more than made up for by part two. Kicking off with a hazy “Stupid Things,” the second set featured generous doses of Kaplan’s primal signature guitar work. The setlist reached all the way back to 1993 for “Shaker” and “Double Dare,” and took occasional breaks from the onslaught of distortion for keyboard-driven tracks like “Mr. Tough” and the ever-charming Hubley-Kaplan duet “If It’s True.” A reprise of “Ohm” pulled the song back toward its recorded arrangement and then extended into a droning, fuzzed-out coda. The set closed with a typically hyper-extended “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” which featured Kaplan strangling one guitar into detuned submission and finishing the song on another.

When he’s in full freakout mode, Kaplan is an astonishingly physical guitarist who swings, strikes and scrapes his instrument to conjure torrents of glorious noise. It’s easy to forget about the subtle, textured playing that he’s also entirely capable of. Such is the nature of Yo La Tengo. The musical skills of Kaplan, McNew and Hubley are just as diverse as their multifaceted catalog would suggest, and they tour with a set of equipment that could arm at least three different bands simultaneously. Kaplan stuck mostly to his collection of six-strings, but Hubley switched readily between drums, keyboards and guitar, while McNew manned bass, 12-string guitars and occasionally an organ. It’s almost difficult to believe that the range of sounds one experiences at a Yo La Tengo performance are all produced by the same three people.

Much like their oft-lengthy albums, Yo La Tengo’s live performances feel like a grand sweep that’s somehow an intimate experience at the same time. Their discography is so large that they could ostensibly go an entire tour without more than a few songs’ worth of overlap. Each setlist spans from the band’s early days to their latest release, and from contemplative tracks to howling 15-plus minute guitar workouts. And that’s not even to mention their extensive repertoire of impeccably chosen cover songs. Case in point: Kaplan acknowledged a bevy of audience requests at the start of the encore before announcing that none of the ideas were as good as his, then tearing into a scorching version of The Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name” which featured enough piercing buzzsaw distortion to make 1967 Lou Reed more than proud.

It’s easy to write about Yo La Tengo at length simply because they deserve it. This was my third time seeing the band, and they still managed to impress me on multiple new levels. Long live one of American’s finest rock bands.

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