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Live Report: Yo La Tengo At Earth
Sean Kitching , February 22nd, 2019 08:24

Sean Kitching goes to see the "little band" who have been around for 35 years and experiences the yin and the yang of their sound

Photograph by StarLynn Jacobs

It’s been some time since I last caught a Yo La Tengo show but seeing them again tonight at their second sold-out date at Dalston’s EartH, it’s almost like no time has passed at all. Ira Kaplan still wiry of limb and hairstyle, decked out in his trademark attire of black jeans and striped t-shirt, alternating between acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards throughout the night. Georgia Hubley in a plaid shirt, behind the drum kit, tinkering with an array of additional percussive instruments, or at the front of the stage singing. James McNew all in black, moving between keyboards, upright double and electric bass, his beard shot through with white the only apparent sign of the years elapsed since the last time I saw them.

Vinyl LPs are strung from the lighting truss and the stage is filled with instruments - reminders of both the band’s status as uber music fans, both popular and obscure, and their playful proclivity for switching instruments between songs. Although much about the band’s live show is unchanging, paradoxically no two Yo La Tengo shows are quite the same, and the sight of the hung LPs sets me wondering what bonus songs from other artists we might get tonight. Previous dates on the current tour have seen the trio covering The Kinks’ ‘Till The End Of The Day’, The Ramones’ ‘Swallow My Pride’, The Holy Modal Rounders’ ‘Griselda’, Devo’s ‘Beautiful World’, Gram Parsons’ ‘A Song For You’, and The Velvet Underground’s ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’, to name but a few.

As one of the original proponents of the quiet/loud dynamic in American rock music, Yo La Tengo’s songbook has long since settled into two distinct strata of muted but beautiful and clamorous, feedback drenched tunes. For the first of tonight’s two sets, the band concentrates on the former, mostly playing tracks from their current record There’s A Riot Going On, whilst the bar remains shut so as not to disturb the delicate ambience conjured up onstage. Opening track ‘You Are Here’ seems the one constant to their current, ever changing setlist.

McNew coaxes a steady drone from electric organ that Kaplan adds layers to by applying e-bow to his guitar strings, whilst Hubley’s cymbals contribute scintillating washes of sound. The first cover of the night arrives in the form of ‘Naples’ by Antietam, a Louisville, Kentucky band who like YLT, had a married couple of multi-instrumentalists at their core. Hubley sings the beautifully sparse ‘Tears Are In Your Eyes’, from And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Kaplan shows he’s more than capable of playing gorgeous, John Fahey-esque, fingerpicking guitar on ‘I’ll Be Around’ from Fade. The usually noisy ‘Deeper Into Movies’ from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, is reborn in a gentler reincarnation, with double bass and acoustic guitar, no drums, with Hubley on organ. It’s an effective manoeuvre, linking the two sets and giving a practical demonstration how a track usually comprised of feedback filled space can be as impressively presented with hushed tones and near emptiness of form. ‘Here You Are’ from the current album closes the first set, the sound level increasing towards the end of the track, anticipating the noisier tracks yet to come.

Conceptually it’s a neat reminder of how important the two different sonic tendencies of the band are in defining their sound. My initial doubts about the segregation of those disparate inclinations are already in retreat by the time the band start up with the Americana-tinged Krautrock-chug of ‘Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)’, with Kaplan’s best Neil Young style controlled-feedback guitar shredding seeming more clangorous than ever after the soft hush of the preceding set. The light-hearted and upbeat ‘Mr Tough’ from 2006's excellent I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, changes the pace yet again, with Kaplan sitting down at the keyboard and hitching his voice up several octaves as though he were Prince.

Coruscating sheets of pulsating noise emit from the organ for ‘Big Day Coming’, Kaplan playing forcefully with full palms and elbows on the keys, Sun Ra style. Bubblegum garage pop number, ‘Nothing To Hide’, and a fabulous version of ‘Sugarcube’, preceded by some brief Devo-esque keyboard sounds, pave the way to the final song of the second set and uncontested highlight of the evening; a full-on cosmic rock version of ‘Blue Line Swinger’ from 1995s Electr-o-pura. Massively resonating chords ring out from the organ as the song begins, somewhat in reverse to the usual mode of YLT song structure with its deconstructed, chaotic beginning eventually falling into a wonderful groove with Hubley singing: "You, you won’t talk about what we see when the lights are out."

When the band return to the stage, we get three covers as an encore. The Velvet Underground’s ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, The Rutles ‘Let’s Be Natural’, which reminds me of a three hour YLT concert in May 2000 with Neil Innes, Robyn Hitchcock and Sonic Boom guesting, and finally the American folk standard, ‘Goodnight, Irene’, originally recorded by Lead Belly and later popularised by the Greenwich Village folk quartet, The Weavers. Kaplan thanks everyone for coming to see "our little band which has been around now for 35 years", and so ends another great Yo La Tengo gig, touching on material both new and old, and suffused with trace elements of the transcendent eternal.