On the evening of March 21st, I saw Yo La Tengo for the first time. Their trip to Pittsburgh couldn't have come at a more opportune point in my life. After years of admiring them from afar (and growing up hearing their records when my parents put them on) I finally became obsessed with them early last fall. First it was Painful that hooked me. Then I Can Feel the Hear Beating as One finally clicked after several cursory attempts at checking it off my list of indie canon essentials. And then once I heard Electr-O-Pura, I knew I was a lifer. I'd found my new (old) favorite band. Their run of beloved Nineties records (as well as 2000's ...And then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out) haven't left my stereo in months, and with the most serendipitous of timing, as if it was preordained to happen, they released a phenomenal new album in February that joined in on the rotation. It's been thrice-weekly summoned to serve on my turntable ever since I picked it up from my local record shop.
About a month-and-a-half after that record, This Stupid World, arrived in the world, Yo La Tengo had a tour stop in Pittsburgh, and I wrangled together a ticket to attend (it was sold-out so I had to pull some strings). I go through phases with bands. I'll obsess over a group for months, weeks or days and then only go back to their catalog sporadically. I think Yo La Tengo are more than a phase for me. I think I'm in forever with this group. But still, the fact that this show happened right at the peak of my budding interest, before I wore out the honeymoon luster of their most beloved albums, before I've had a chance to really form a critical opinion on Yo La Tengo and am still just taking in their music as a marveling onlooker — the show's timing felt cosmic. Below, are 20 thoughts on my experience.
- Damn, they play quietly! I had some issues getting in the door of the venue and unfortunately missed the first couple songs in the set. At first, I actually didn't think I'd missed a single note, because despite standing outside the entrance, where sound usually spills out into the stone walkway, I hadn't heard any pangs of distortion. No drum fill preambles. No microphone chatter. Not even the customary woo's of the crowd. Nothing. So when I finally did get in and hustled into the performance room, squishing in between a cluster of college kids sipping cocktails out of plastic cups, I was shocked to witness the band mid-song, Ira Kaplan mewing into the mic while Georgia Hubley whisked the drums and James McNew thumbed the bass. A single cough would've overpowered the sound coming from the stage, but the audience was respectfully mum, like they were stunned still watching a deer pace cross their lawn from a few feet away. Disturbances throughout the night remained minimal. As they should have.
- Ira Kaplan sounds like Kermit the Frog. I realized I hadn't ever heard the man speak before, I'd only read interviews with him and heard him sing in that warbly, introverted hum. But when he spoke into the mic for the first time, I was surprised to hear how unusual his speaking timbre is. It suits the homely, congenial, fresh newspaper-y feel of the music, though. It's a nice voice. Dude just sounds a little bit like Kermit.
- The new songs rule. Usually, when a band has been around as long as Yo La Tengo have (almost 40 years), even if the new stuff is good, it's not what you necessarily want to hear live. You want to hear a mix of old and new, but mostly old, right? The set I saw featured seven songs from This Stupid World (and two or less cuts from several of their older albums), but I wasn't disappointed in the least. The new stuff has the drone-y, gaze-y, meandering character of my favorite work of theirs, and the fresh tracks meld seamlessly in with the "hits." Despite the vast sonic diversity of their repertoire, everything they played felt like part of a great, cohesive whole.
- Yo La Tengo's songs aren't sing-alongs. Aside from a few chirps during "Autumn Sweater," and even when the band abided by some of the audience's yelled requests during the encore, there was never a point during the night when the whole room was singing together. Witnessing the band was the experience, not communally chanting like a traditional rock show. I think that's part of why the new songs worked so well and felt so natural. No one's yearning to bellow along to any of their cuts. We're there to get lost in Kaplan's cacophonous guitar freakouts and nod approvingly when McNew sets his bass down, sits at a smaller drum kit in front of Hubley's and stiffly pitter-patters along, filling in the cracks between the formal drummer's shy-funk grooves. It's the kind of show where you don't need to know a single word to enjoy it. Frankly, they could've stood up their improvising for three hours straight and I would've been captivated the whole time.
- I thought the average age of the crowd would skew much older. The band are vets who're well into middle-age, and anyone who's been following them since the early Nineties has been on this earth twice as long as I have. That said, the audience mostly consisted of 35-and-unders. A lot of unders, to be honest.
- I wonder how it feels to be Yo La Tengo, up there playing songs that were written before half the audience was born. Looking out into the crowd and seeing the same expressions of lilting amazement they've seen on the faces of 20-somethings for multiple generations of bookish bohemians. That's got to be a special feeling. Gratitude, for how their un-commercial, always left-of-center music has transcended numerous decade's worth of listener sensibilities, and can still sell out a room 30 years after their breakthrough album. But also probably some uneasiness about their own mortality. If that latter feeling is there, I didn't regiter an iota of it throughout the performance. The band were so honed-in, so singularly attentive to what they were playing. Every movement, whether a strike of the guitar or a step to the microphone across the stage, appeared instinctive. Instinctive in the way someone behaves when they've been doing something so long that don't have to think about it anymore. But, crucially, Yo La Tengo were still thinking about it. Because they clearly wanted to. Because that's what they love doing. To be that enamored, that visibly fulfilled by a creative project after to so many years, that you aren't self-conscious about the crowd before you or pandering to anyone's nostalgic wishes or going through the motions because that's what you were hired to do. To just be up there doing it, and doing it in a way that's so effortlessly caring and loving and tender. That's remarkable. That's where anyone could possibly hope to be at an advanced age. It was inspiring to witness.
- I wish they played "Big Day Coming - Second Version." That's my only greedy fleck of let-down after this show, which was otherwise totally alluring from start to finish. They played the quiet, first version of the Painful sibling songs, and I loved seeing that. Hubley came out from behind the kit and cooed into the mic at the front of the stage with her hands behind her back, flanked by her bandmates. It was one of many moments of commanding quietude that ensued throughout the night. But man, the way the "Second," fully-distorted version of that song knocks and clatters and rumbles is just soooo goddamn fun. It's probably my favorite Yo La Tengo song. If they played it, I would've lost my shit. Maybe it's good that they didn't play it, then. The people I was squeezed between wouldn't have been happy with my flailing.
- Earlier I said that disturbances from the crowd were minimal. There were a few, though. In one sense, I had a bit more tolerance for the gregarious, entitled jeers to "play 'Little Honda'!" than I normally would at a show. Yo La Tengo famously take requests, and eventually did later in the night. That said, I cringe every time some knuckleheaded man (it's always a man. Always.) wailed at the band in between songs like they were a cheap jukebox. It's insulting, and idiotic, to do that to a band. I was impressed how well they handled it, though. After a majestic, eight-minute blaze would cool to a foggy guitar loop, people would blurt out their requests and Kaplan would just continue tuning, not a single nerve in either corner of his lip twitching in acknowledgement. Just the residual, cathartic satisfaction of what he just played surging through his veins, serving as a celestial forcefield to block out the bumbleheaded chatter. During the couple times in the night when Kaplan addressed the crowd, he was treated to some hecklers who, for some reason, I couldn't possibly understand why, thought it was a call-and-response situation. Imbeciles. Regardless, Kaplan deflected the pick-me quips without missing a beat. When someone reassured him that the unusual rendition of "Saturday" ("This isn't how we usually play this song," Kaplan warned) would still be great, he immediately snipped, "Well, it might not," with a cool smirk. When Kaplan mentioned the many beautiful bridges that connect Pittsburgh's arteries, someone snapped, "They all suck!" Kaplan swiftly retorted, "Well that's just improbable, surely at least one of them is great." If you front a quiet band for three decades, I guess you become Jedi-like at that sort of thing.
- They played as hard as they played quiet. For all the sweet, subdued portions of the setlist, there were just as many moments when the band came alive and managed to summon a formidable torrent of noise between the three of them. They played a lot with looping pedals, whether it was McNew laying down a bassline and then stepping away to follow his own rhythm on the drums, or Kaplan throwing down a couple layers of guitar twiddling before ripping an aching solo atop the expanse of volume. They played several long songs with climatic endings that each could've served as a satisfying closers, but nothing compared to the cathartic blitz of "The Story of Yo La Tengo," which they stomped and thrashed through as the finale of their main set. By the end, Kaplan was hoisting his guitar over his head and whipping it down toward the ground. The only thing separating him from Pete Townshend was he never smashed it, but it looked like he might! He was totally transfixed, in a state of purifying release that's probably nightly routine at this point, but looked like someone being consumed by the power of his own music for the first time. Several times in that same venue I've seen Built to Spill, fellow keepers of winding, jam-infused, meek-voiced, horizon-scratching indie-rock, who've recorded many songs that are far more epic than Yo La Tengo's biggest blowouts. Not once — not even during "Broken Chairs," possibly the most towering indie-rock song I've ever heard — have I seen them dig into the audience's stomachs like a grapefruit spoon in the way Yo La Tengo did with that closing number.
- The whole night I was hoping, and just had a magical hunch, that one of their encore covers would be a Velvet Underground song. They cover Velvets songs pretty often during their encores (which usually consist entirely of covers), but I didn't have any real reason to think that they'd play one the night I saw them. I just had a feeling. Sure enough, after taking a couple fan requests for songs from their own catalog, Kaplan murmured that they'd be remiss not to honor the birthplace of Andy Warhol without one of "his songs" (or something like that, nodding to his involvement in the group without expressly mentioning VU by name), and then they closed out the night with a svelte rendition of "I'll Be Your Mirror." My wish came true. Like I said. Cosmic.