Reviewed on Thursday March 13 (photo by Ashley Mar)
There aren’t a lot of bands that can split a performance into two pretty wildly different sets – ‘quiet’ and ‘loud’ respectively – and have it still feel like a cohesive and all-encompassing experience. Then again, not many bands are Yo La Tengo, an act which, after three decades and 13 studio albums, has built a proud legacy as one of the most idiosyncratic names in indie rock. Exploring their demure heartbreakers before demonstrating psyched-out rock leanings inside the intimate setting of the Opera House doesn’t feel disjointed; rather, it stands as testament to the group’s sheer songwriting capabilities and versatility as performers.
Opening with ‘Ohm’ from latest album Fade, the trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew displays an immediate level of fragility, as if the seated Concert Hall audience is privy to some kind of delicately whispered secret slowly being uncovered. One of the best things about Yo La Tengo throughout the course of their career has always been the tiny flashes of brilliance revealed in the intricate subtleties hidden within each song. Showcased in their stripped-down format, tracks like ‘Saturday’ and ‘Big Day Coming’ allow these nuances to truly breathe – on occasion, such as with the ethereal vocal harmonies, hauntingly so.
Set two is not so much about immediate, heavy-handed juxtaposition as it is continuing to play off the band’s enigmatic, multifaceted nature. As the trio swaps vocal roles and instruments seamlessly, the kind of chemistry fostered through over 20 years of playing together with the same lineup becomes more and more apparent. That said, the latter portion of the performance increasingly becomes a platform for the band to throw inhibitions to the wind. ‘False Alarm’ sees Kaplan bash away seemingly haphazardly at an analog synth behind a frenzied wall of feedback, while the extended, psychedelic jams towards the set’s end emit a sense of euphoria that serves as a welcome counterpoint to the tender melancholia of the first half. There are more than a few heads a-bobbin’ throughout the crowd, glued though they may be to their velvet cubicles. A punter towards the front stands to the side and, having all but thrown their hands in the air and declared “fuck it”, dances with enough joyful exuberance to make up for the entire room.
By the night’s end, Yo La Tengo have given inarguable evidence of the diversity and strength of their catalogue, as well as the creative ingenuity that goes into their live performance. Notably, ‘Ohm’ is included in both sets and while coming from the same root, feels like two quite different tracks. If the mark of great songwriting and compelling performance is the ability to powerfully translate across styles and settings, Yo La Tengo have the proof.