Yo La Tengo @ Town Hall, 1 May 2018

It is a fact that any thought communicated with regard to the New Jersey trio, Yo La Tengo, must be accompanied by the obligatory reference to the band not having garnered “more” from a career that is well into its third decade. By more, we of course mean, more money, more fans and more endorsements towards a very popular brand of headphones , etc. Some of us are conditioned to the notion that longevity is a reward bestowed upon those who are able to adhere to the principles of growth that inform the much of the music industry. How dare they still be going? Either they grow or they disappear into oblivion. Boo to the peaks and the troughs. Here’s to the plateau of productivity.

The band arrives to play Birmingham’s prestigious Town Hall in promotion of their 15th studio album, ‘There’s a Riot Going On’. Like any band, with a batch of new songs in its arsenal, the prospect of devising a setlist must be a difficult undertaking. A band’s fulfilment will likely be firmly anchored to the latest material. Such a desire to play the less familiar material must be offset against adequate room for the fan favourites. This tricky balancing act must be handled carefully. Or you could simply adopt Yo La Tengo’s methodology, refrain from having a support act altogether, and simply perform two sets. This decision affords the band the opportunity to play one set primarily focused upon the new album, the second, dominated by a delightful spattering of songs from across a catalogue that dates back to the dawn of the 90s.

The stage dressing is relatively straightforward, albeit for the dozen or so faux vinyl records hanging from the ceiling. The band is warmly received by tonight’s audience as the Hoboken group ready themselves behind their instruments, before the swirling soundscape that informs the vast hall is abruptly punctured by Ira Kaplan ebowing a singular string, producing a sustained horn like note which temporarily dominates, before the pursuant trundling rhythms produced by Hubley’s crisp drumming ascend to the fore. The percussive parts further swell as McNew makes his way from behind a plethora of keyboards, positioning himself in front of Hubley’s kit, playing a symbol and snare which bolsters the punchy opener. Kaplan rejoins proceedings armed with his innumerable guitar effects, painting the melody over the hypnotic beats. The trio’s individual parts nestle their way to a union which builds momentum, before the dissipating to a warm buzz.

There is no room for applause as the buzz slowly bleeds into the glorious ‘Forever’. Taken from the new album, Hubley and McNew unite to provide the dreamy “shoo-wop shoo-wop” backing vocals, whilst the unmistakeable Kaplan vocal picks up the central narrative. Kaplan’s unique delivery sounds like some confessional voicemail message left on an answer machine at some ungodly hour of the morning.

Hubley provides the lead vocal on ‘Ashes’, with Kaplan picking up the piano duties whilst also being responsible for a single symbol strike on Hubley’s kit at multiple points during the song — a task that requires Kaplan to navigate his way across the stage, timed to perfection as he arrives just at the moment his singular strike is required.

Though the material contained on ‘There’s a Riot Going On’ is more sedate than previous ventures, almost ambient at times, there is no respite in between songs, as each one gently merges into the next, offering little time for any interaction between the band and audience — the later, respectfully soaking up every noise generated, so much so, that it’s some 40 minutes into the set before there is the opportunity for the audience to applaud.

The second set is a much welcomed reward for the audiences attentiveness during the first half. Firm fan favourites such as ‘From a Motel 6’ and ‘Tom Courtenay’ help to ramp up the intensity of the second half of the evening. ‘For You Too’ is sublime, with McNew’s relentless and grubby bass playing forging the way for his bandmates.

It’s no secret that Yo La Tengo thoroughly enjoy a good cover and following Kaplan’s thanks of the audience, for their attentiveness, and for the opportunity to play in the city that spawned Roy Wood, The Move and ELO, the group offer up three covers – ‘Little Honda’ (The Beach Boys), ‘Astral Plane (Jonathan Richman), ‘With a Girl Like You’ (The Troggs) and ‘You Tore Me Down’ (Flamin’ Groovies) – which bring the evening to a close, and leave the many in attendance basking in the that understated glow that emirates from Yo La Tengo.

Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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