Yo La Tengo at Turner Hall
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The only problem with being labeled as the quintessence of something or other is that it puts you on a razor’s edge between pioneering and run-of-the-mill. A lot of Yo La Tengo records tend to come off as the latter, at least initially. The unobtrusive vocals, subtle atmospherics, and gently engaging hooks mixed with starkly contrasting noise jams add up to a scholarly study in indie-rock bullet points when taken out of context. Without examining lyrics or focusing on the melodies and arrangements, much of the band’s material comes off as superficially dull—but not in the live setting. Taking a cue from Neil Young, Yo La Tengo played an acoustic and then an electric set at Turner Hall Saturday night, and held the crowd captivated for nearly the entire performance, no matter how quiet or noisy the music got.
There was a heavy dose of material from the excellent new album Fade, including a rendition of opening track “Ohm” in each set. The biggest surprise was the exclusion of the landmark 1997 album I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One; instead, the band played three tunes each from Painful and Electr-O-Pura, digging deep into the beginnings of this lineup’s era for several of the night’s highlights. The gravity and realness of piercing relationship songs like “I’ll Be Around” and “The Point Of It” as performed in-person by husband Ira Kaplan and wife Georgia Hubley felt 10 times heavier than on record, adding tension to the overtly delicate first set. No artist since Neil Young’s heyday has captured the blunt stream-of-consciousness arc between passion and practicality that is a love affair the way Yo La Tengo does. Kaplan’s imaginative guitar picking was a delight to watch and listen to, and many Milwaukee fans were pleased to hear a cover of The Frogs’ “Weird On The Avenue” as well.
The plugged-in set got off to a rocky start. Not only was the crew struggling to get the sound dialed in properly, but the band wasn’t gelling early on. Hubley in particular seemed almost lethargic; it’s not as though she’s ever exactly exuberant as a vocalist, but her efforts on “Decora” and “Little Eyes” barely registered above a mumble, and her remarkably nuanced drumming was a bit clumsy on the first few tunes. Kaplan’s guitar on “Little Eyes” was also curiously muted and whiny. But soon, everything fell into place. The joyous “Mr. Tough” brought everyone out of a funk, and the pairing of Fade’s “Before We Run” and “Ohm” produced a lengthy stretch of slow-burning drama that exploded in a sizzle of pounding rhythm, effects, and Kaplan’s maniacal creativity on the electric guitar. From then on, it was Kaplan’s show. Few guitarists in their mid-50s can summon this level of spontaneous primal energy while maintaining such a compelling narrative flow. Whether wailing melodic leads or descending into caustic noise, Kaplan kept the crowd guessing and following along eagerly. For a band whose recorded output succeeds mostly on the strengths of its subtleties, it was the very obvious raw talent of the musicians that carried this show.