What is it with Yo La Tengo? They seem like such calm, good-hearted, perfectly nice people, and they write such perfectly nice songs. And then they take it to the bridge, and this ungodly cloudhead of rumble and skronk rolls off of the stage and into the audience, and we all get knocked over like skittle pins. That’s how it felt, at least, at Stuart’s Opera House, a 130-year-old community arts center/performance space in Nelsonville, Ohio, where Ira Kaplan, James McNew and Georgia Hubley brought their powerhouse live show in support of the newly released (and cheekily titled) Popular Songs (Matador). Into this intimate and unassuming space tromped the perfectly nice Yo La Tengo, and over the course of two remarkable hours, Kaplan, McNew and Hubley owned it, killed it, burned it down, built it back up, then burned it down again. It was immediately recognizable as a momentous show, in every respect—one of those evenings that blows the curve for every other live performance you’re likely going to see.
Nelsonville is genuinely quaint like a Frank Capra film, as opposed to threateningly quaint like a David Lynch movie. Stuart’s Opera House, a two-story historical theater with buffed wood floors, full balcony and box seats, is a great deal less stuffy than that shorthand description might suggest. It’s one of those neighborhood venues that’s airy and brightly painted inside, a place where local school kids helped to design the lobby’s music-and-local-landscape themed mural, where the downstairs bar serves microbrew and where the merch table next to Yo La Tengo’s was raffling off a Martin D-18 guitar and selling $2 Opera House stickers. In short, it’s a balance of serious art and charming personality, which is as fine a précis for Yo La Tengo’s live show as any I can think of.
The energetic Beatdowns, from up the road in Columbus, opened with a set of Zombies/early-Stones-inflected R&B and garage rock, looking as goofy and happy as any bunch of mid-1960s beat-revivalists might, complete with spiffy shoes and hipster specs. The crowd gave them a great reception—they’re local boys, after all, and a tight five-piece combo on any merits—and the band’s giveaway single, “Disconnected Girl”/”Away From The Crowd,” went quickly during the break between sets. (Download the free single.)
Then the house lights dimmed. The stage backdrop, a giant reproduction of the back-cover artwork for Popular Songs, wafted in a light breeze. And then, without a great sense of occasion or fanfare despite the vigorous reception they received, Yo La Tengo took up positions and opened the show with the slow, atmospheric instrumental “Green Arrow,” from 1997’s I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One. If you’ve never seen Yo La Tengo play, it’s hard to describe what a genuine sense of humility there is to it all, and how directly that affects the experience of the live show. Here’s a band that can shift from shimmering, vibrato-soaked instrumentals to art/noise workouts without taking a breath, frequently in the same song. And Kaplan, McNew and Hubley go at it like a job: They come out, they play, they gab with us a little and they play. They segue from song to song with total confidence—many of the between-song transitions were only looped ride-outs from the previous song—but with absolutely zero attitude or gravitas. Maybe it has to do with hailing from Hoboken as opposed to the Big Shitty: Yo La Tengo portrayed a Velvet Underground-esque band in Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, but YLT’s approach is less art-house cool than tool-shed work, and you get the impression that none of them thinks about their poses or gives much of a damn about anything but the sound, for the whole time they’re onstage.
The night was heavy on material from the new record, including shapely pop numbers like the funk-inflected “Periodically Double Or Triple” and longer, more sprawling workouts. But Yo La Tengo drew liberally from the entirety of their 20-plus-year body of work, including sunshiny tracks like “Yellow Sarong” and “Tom Courtenay” as well as crisp, disturbing songs like “Autumn Sweater” and full-band noise rave-ups. The liberal approach made for an evening that became a shared celebration of the band, as much as a showcase for its performance chops.
And what a performance it was. Kaplan moved deftly from reverb-soaked slide guitar to squealing solos, taking turns at the Farfisa and keyboard rigs along the way. (“Good evening,” he deadpanned, “I’m Bill Evans.”) McNew switched back and forth between bass and guitar like a gunslinger and sat a turn on drums and percussion briefly. And good lord, Hubley. The Moe Tucker comparisons became tiresome a while back, but what an arm Hubley’s got—whomping the bass drum with the mallets, kissing the cymbals with the brushes and beating the mortal shit out of everything around her when McNew and Kaplan go off into high-volume noodling. To observe Yo La Tengo crank the volume was to know the difference between raw power and well-shaped volume, and it was the latter that drove the night. Even with several free-form improvisations knitted into the structure, YLT was never out of control for a second. To be in the hands of an outfit that assured, that skilled and that happy to make music was a fine thing indeed.
Memories of the evening shatter into happy pieces: two encores. A burst of stage-front dancing at the end of the night. Audience members who ran the gamut from aging hipsters (and, ahem, nerdly rock journalists) to kids who couldn’t have been more than 18, giddily singing along and snapping pictures. Kaplan, raising his hand at the end of the night, saying, “Thank you. This has been really special.” The two guys up front who yelled, “Thank you!” back. We’re all such nice people. Such perfectly nice, perfectly loud people.
If it comes anywhere near you, see this show. You won’t forget it.