When it comes to a band like Yo La Tengo — where approaching a full discography is a Herculean task — it’s amazing how well a small concert can encapsulate its personality. There were two Yo La Tengos on display at Velvet Jones on Monday night, and both excelled on their own terms.
The first was “shoegaze” Yo La Tengo. As that label implies, things got off to a slow start. Using the Velvet Underground as a launch pad, this version of the band attempted to maximize the possibilities of minimalism, borrowing song forms from Motown, U2, or whomever, elongating those familiar ideas, and sometimes creating as much dissonance and noise over them as possible. These tricks have made them icons for many indie rock fans.
The droning power chords of “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven,” for example, stretched over 10 minutes. During these rock outs, guitarist Ira Kaplan went off on noisy tangents, playing his guitar not as an instrument, but as something he’s fighting against. These fantasias of feedback, as heard on “I Heard You Looking” (off their wonderful album Painful), may at times have sounded coarse, but at other times seemed no more abrasive than a pumice stone.
The term “shoegaze,” in this context, is more of an instruction than a description — one that applies as much to the audience as it does to the performer. Stare at the band, bang your head, pump your fist; that’s a recipe for disappointment. But approach the show with closed eyes and a hung head; the better to experience the music with. This can draw in listeners, but it can also put them to sleep, especially those expecting anything close to charisma from those on stage.
However, there was also “cover band” Yo La Tengo. Their show included so many obscure indie rock allusions that they should have passed out endnotes. How many people were aware of Rex Garvin & the Mighty Cravers’ song “Emulsified” before YLT delivered their danceable rendering on the album Fakebook? The more upbeat originals can also sound like cover tunes, especially “If It’s True” from 2009’s Popular Songs, the bass line for which seems like an homage to “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops. During these tunes, the New Jersey natives let loose and showed off their sense of humor with gratifying results.
There was clearly a two-sided, Jekyll v. Hyde dynamic to the band’s set. But by the time they closed out the show (during a second encore, no less) with a playful rendition of an obscure folk-rock ditty titled “Griselda” by Peter Stampfel, even I couldn’t tell which had triumphed.