Yo La Tengo – Brooklyn Steel – April 6, 2018
Photos courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | gregggreenwood.com
Not too many rock acts out there even attempt to play two full sets of music every show, filling a set list with different songs from across their catalog each night. Even fewer do it after almost 35 years as a band and rarer still that such an outfit would do so while also promoting a brand-new album that’s as strong and vital as any of the newest music being put out today. All of which makes Yo La Tengo a unique band. The trio has played something like 10 shows in New York City over the past year—from a free-jazz freak-out to their free-form Hanukkah shows to a free show in Central Park. They seem to invert everything about rock and roll, just playing a regular old club gig is the rarity. But that’s where Yo La Tengo found themselves, in the middle of a regular old tour, playing a sold-out gig at Brooklyn Steel on Friday night. The date happened to fall on the venue’s first birthday, one year since opening its doors, which somehow felt appropriate—as NYC’s live-music landscape changes with each passing year, Yo La Tengo have been a constant.
That consistency was on full display throughout their show. The eight-song first set played like a single entity, a group meditation that held the audience in complete attention. The band—Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew—moved around the stage to different instruments, a ballet of guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. Regardless of who was playing what at any time, the mood was one of utter relaxation, the music alternating between Zen loops, crunchy guitar melodies and whispered singing. Quietude was the overarching theme and the crowd followed along: A huge rock club in complete silence is the rarest of all things, but with Yo La Tengo leading along on songs like “She May She Might” and the lovely “Ashes,” it felt completely natural. Everyone was happy to luxuriate in the peace the band was offering. The real joys were found in between the songs, the veterans lingering on interstitial themes and setting up new ambient spaces in the segues.
The second set quickly flipped the script: “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)” unleashed Kaplan’s guitar into a gesticulating chaos while McNew and Hubley chugged along. The restraint of the first set dissolved into a host of rock-outs, building to a peak in “Ohm,” which found Kaplan passing his guitar into the crowd, held aloft like a rock star, feedback filling the room. The set-closing “Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind” was a patient jammer, epic in length and intensity, Kaplan soloing and singing while lying on the stage. A Velvet Underground–cover-heavy encore showed off other facets of Yo La Tengo’s upside-down rock and roll and kept their local and loyal fans satisfied until the next encounter. —A. Stein | @Neddyo