Yo La Tengo / Oct. 10, 2006 / Boulder, Colo. (Boulder Theatre)
For most veteran touring acts, the formula of a set mixing predominantly songs from their latest album with a few fan favorites from the past is to be expected by concertgoers. For New Jersey's favoriFor most veteran touring acts, the formula of a set mixing predominantly songs from their latest album with a few fan favorites from the past is to be expected by concertgoers. For New Jersey's favorite sons (and daughter) Yo La Tengo, it's a bit of a surprise. Much of the band's good reputation comes from its unpredictable concerts, which sample the band's 20-year catalog and their encyclopedic knowledge of rock history. But in Boulder on Oct. 19, the trio's choice to concentrate on songs from their new record "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" for the bulk of their main set reflected their obvious enthusiasm for the new material and the record's return to the group's trademark eclecticism after two largely sedate albums.
The band began in form with a supercharged retake of the early-'90s obscurity "Up to You" before downshifting into the great "Pablo & Andrea." The more formal pop structures of Yo La Tengo's recent work have if anything tightened their musicianship, an effect that's more clear when they return to older material. Ira Kaplan has improbably evolved into an excellent improviser on guitar and keyboards, and the rhythm section of bassist James McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley patiently swings. The long stretch of new songs that made up the middle of the set ably demonstrated how their sound continues to grow and change despite the decade-plus they've been playing in this configuration.
During the longer Kaplan guitar freakouts, like the new album's "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and the older instrumental "I Heard You Looking," the band had a slight tendency to lose its shape, but their willingness to wander off the beaten path and sometimes completely lose the plot has long been part of Yo La Tengo's charm as a live act. The real surprise was how convincingly they were able to sell some of the more sophisticated numbers from the new record, like the disco-tinged "Mr. Tough" or the close garage harmonies of "I Should Have Known Better." Even for longtime fans it's impressive to see how the band can move from rockers like "Sugarcube" and "Watch Out for Me Ronnie" to gentle ballads like "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Shadows" with no loss of intensity. Hubley, with her whispery alto, has a way of hushing a crowd whenever she takes a lead vocal. It's equally welcome when McNew takes center stage with his falsetto, an increasingly common sight at Yo La Tengo shows the last few years.
Kaplan sings the bulk of the material, and over the years he's grown from an earnest Lou Reed impersonator into a surprisingly expressive vocalist within the limitations of range. He's equally adept at handling earnest indie rock like "Tom Courtenay" and opening up on more fragile material like the jazzy waltz
"Sometimes I Don't Get You." When he harmonizes with his wife and lifelong musical partner Hubley, the results are something much greater than the sum of their parts, as demonstrated on a new arrangement of the old earbleeder "From a Motel 6."
If the set choices during the first act were a little more predictable than might have been expected, the freewheeling encores more than made up for it. Yo La Tengo's members pride themselves on being to perform nearly any song they've ever recorded at the drop of a hat, and all-request encores are established protocol. With their huge record collections and seemingly unlimited recall for obscure classics, Yo La Tengo might be the greatest cover band that ever was. Tuesday night, they swung from Jackson Browne ("Somebody's Baby") to Sandy Denny ("By the Time It Gets Dark") to Sun Ra (the once-again timely "Nuclear War").
It would be impossible for them to please every fan with their song selection at a single concert, given the wealth of great moments in their discography, but if anything, Yo La Tengo are back to displaying their fierce and impressive range this tour. Whether you are just discovering their music or have been a fan for 20 years, Yo La Tengo are not to be missed.
Here is Yo La Tengo's set list:
"Up to You"
"Pablo & Andrea"
"Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"
"The Weakest Part"
"Sometimes I Don't Get You"
"I Feel Like Going Home"
"The Race Is On Again"
"I Should Have Known Better"
"Watch Out for Me Ronnie"
"The Story of Yo La Tango"
"I Heard You Looking"
"You Tore Me Down"
"From a Motel 6"
"By the Time It Gets Dark"