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Time Fades Away but Yo La Tengo Never Does

The indie lifers were in top form for their First Ave show, which even featured a couple of local special guests.

1:31 PM CDT on March 27, 2023

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Ira Kaplan does unspeakable things to his guitar as Georgia Hubley and James McNew rock on.

If you’d asked me 30 years ago if I’d still be turning out for Yo La Tengo shows in 2023, as I did last night at First Avenue, I might have predicted that my club-going days would have ended by now. But I wouldn’t have doubted that the band would still be on the road. There are musicians that burn out and musicians that fade away, as Neil Young once memorably and unfortunately put it, but then again there are bands that are too smart to even consider those clichés the only options. As far back as 25 years ago, continuity already seemed Yo La Tengo’s great gift to the impermanent, jury-rigged world of indie rock. 

But you really can’t count on anything anymore, which makes it harder to take Yo La Tengo’s consistency for granted. They’ve been three decades in their present form as a trio (I’ll resist calling guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew by their first names because I don’t actually know them, no matter how much I feel I do), and existed for a decade before that. Kaplan and Hubley have been married since 1987. As enviable as their musical and romantic partnership may be, keeping all that shit together takes harder work than Yo La Tengo ever lets on. 

And so, each show now takes on the air of a special event—in part because for the band’s aging audience, going out for the night (standing up for over two hours!) is a special event, in part because Yo La Tengo splits their shows into two sets, with an intermission so you don’t have to yak or head to the bar while the band’s playing. (And get this—most people don’t, or at least the ones near me last night mostly didn’t.) Each of the band’s albums, including their latest, This Stupid World, mingles noise, tune, and sentiment in fluctuating but always precise increments, developing their core sound without radically altering it; somehow, similarly, a Yo La Tengo show has solidified into a tradition without calcifying into a ritual. 

Their sold-out Mainroom gig on Sunday night was no exception. The night stretched on for two-and-a-half hours, including a break I was too busy chatting to time (feel free to dock my pay), so figure somewhere between 2:10 and 2:15 of music. Mixed in with seven of the new album’s nine songs was material from older albums (the nostalgic “The Summer” from 1990’s Fakebook, the pounding mid-’90s rarity, “Shaker”) and relatively newer ones (the sweet, finger-picked “I’ll Be Around” from 2013’s Fade, the mission statement “Let’s Do It Wrong” from 2018’s deceptively titled There’s a Riot Going On). Kaplan, at a rangy 66 years old, wore one of the boyish striped shirts he still favors. Hubley, three years younger, was in casual flannel. The one-time baby of the group, McNew, now 53, preferred all black.  

The band’s two sets were split between quiet stuff and loud stuff—more or less, that is, because Yo La Tengo, like life, doesn’t bifurcate that simply. The noisier set had room for the tender “Autumn Sweater” and “Today Is the Day,” featuring one of Hubley’s most delicate vocals. And the hushed set’s opener, “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” offered the first of Kaplan’s electric guitar freakouts. The lead track from This Stupid World, it featured Hubley landing on the snare hard as McNew locked in for a motorik groove, and promised commitment but not eternity: ”Your eyes, your love,” the band harmonized. “Until we all break, until we all break.”

Quiet, for Yo La Tengo, sometimes but doesn’t always mean acoustic. Several electronic keyboards were scattered around the stage, which different band members availed themselves of over the course of the night. For McNew’s contribution to This Stupid World, “Tonight’s Episode,” in which he boasts of his yo-yo acumen (though, sadly, he failed to demonstrate this IRL), Kaplan plinked about on an electric piano while a guitar was left alone to gently churn feedback into the mix. 

Kaplan, as ever, was the onstage spokesman for the group. “We’re not even mad about Carlos Correa,” the longtime Mets fan told Minnesota. He also noted changes at First Ave with slight disappointment (“What happened to the pinball machines?”) and deflected an audience request for a certain cover song by saying what they'd play instead was “kind of like playing” that song because “we didn’t write this song either.” 

Hubley’s vocals came to the fore on the gorgeous new “Aselestine,” which may be a misspelling of the antihistamine (“The drugs don't do/What you said they do”), possibly making it the loveliest song about untreated nasal allergies, though it seems to allude to a greater sense of loss. The drummer also sang the first of the night’s covers, the oddball folkie Michael Hurley’s “Polynesia #1” (“I’m going to Polynesia/I’m going at my leisure”—that last word softened to rhyme with the titular island region). Where Kaplan’s voice has retained an almost teen gawkiness even at its most hushed—on the new “Apology Letter” (“if I were to smile at you/Would you smile at me?”) it captures how a certain sheepishness lingers deep into a relationship—Hubley’s warm, airy voice that can sound both reassuring and melancholy. 

The second set began with the title track, a rhythmic stomp borne on waves of feedback through its inarguable chorus: “This stupid world/Is all we have.” An understandable uneasiness has increasingly pervaded Yo La Tengo albums in the 21st century—you can’t be hushedly brash about how your self-contained unit is impervious to outside forces forever—and that could be heard on another new song, “Fallout,” on which Kaplan sang “I don't know how it's gonna be/Close your eyes/Fall out of time with me.” 

Yo La Tengo are not averse to playing their “hits” either, by which I mean, since commercial viability has never been their concern, their punchiest, briefest, songiest moments. From their 1997 masterwork I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One came McNew’s tender “Stockholm Syndrome” (“It makes me sigh/I do believe in love”), punctured midway by a particularly incendiary Kaplan solo, and the melodic electro-drone “Autumn Sweater,” which always sounds better if someone is holding your hand, though I made do as best I could. 

“Tom Courtenay” opens with the vivacity of a Frank O’Hara poem (“Julie Christie! The rumors are true”) and then, like a dream you might have after falling asleep while watching old movies on TV, jumbles images from Swinging London flicks Billy Liar and Help! Into a worrisome, if vague, vision. Fitting, then, that this led into “Deeper Into Movies,” with Kaplan’s guitar at its shoegaziest but Hubley’s drumming at its most punctuational. 

I can’t say I’ve timed them, but Kaplan’s noise forays seem to have shortened over the years. The night’s big exception was its climax, the instrumental “I Saw You Looking,” for which Alan Sparhawk of Low joined the band on unobtrusive keyboard. The song is built on a lovely repetitive guitar riff that serves as a platform for Kaplan’s guitar heroics. Well, “heroics” doesn’t seem like quite the right word: When he lifts a guitar behind his head, or mashes two guitars against one another, sure, he’s showing off a little, but he’s striving for particular noises rather than showmanship. As an electronic experimentalist, Kaplan has always seemed to burrow rather than voyage, aiming not for the stratosphere but the spaces in between the notes and the rhythms. 

Then again, I wonder sometimes how much of the way I hear Yo La Tengo is shaped by the presence of Kaplan and Hubley’s marriage at the center. Resist the autobiographical urge all you want, but when they sing “you” they can’t mean me (or you). Metaphor shapes how sounds reach us, and real life circumstances shape the metaphors we choose. Abrasive as they can be, words like “comfortable” and “domestic” have always suggested themselves to me when I listen to Yo La Tengo, and why can’t music be as scratchy yet cozy as a thrift shop cardigan? Maybe some of this is projection, but the band’s art and self-presentation does nothing to undermine my interpretation of their aesthetic, that adventure and experimentation is best cultivated when you’re surrounded by loved ones. 

During the three-song encore, that circle expanded to take in friends. Kaplan began by reminiscing about the first time he visited Minneapolis in 1979, for the legendary M-80 new music festival, held in the U of M fieldhouse. He recalled watching the great lost ’80s Minneapolis postpunk band NNB, and thinking of its ferocious frontman: “I didn’t want to get any closer to him than I am right now.” But then he called that guy, his longtime pal Mark Freeman, to the stage to join in on a garage-rocking version of Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away.” I guess a cover of NNB’s “Slack” would’ve been too much to ask, but Neil’s shaggy carpe diem did take us into the homestretch on an appropriately cautionary note.

Sparhawk returned, on guitar this time, as Kaplan promised to play “an AM radio hit from a couple years back,” which turned out to be Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (the kids all love that one), thoroughly Yo La Tengfied, with the punchy bottom intact but streaked with sludgy guitar. (Is an all Mac covers EP—Tengo in the Night—too much to ask?) 

Above all, though, Yo La Tengo encore is where the band shows off their record collectors’ depth, and where they demonstrate they know the difference between a great lost song and a justifiably forgotten one. And so the night ended with a true only-YLT moment, as Hubley sang “Dreaming,” a doo wop song Sun Ra cut in the ’50s with a group called the Cosmic Rays that Kaplan called a “lullaby,” and which they dedicated to former First Ave GM Steve McClellan. It capped off a night where we were made more aware of time fading away than usual, and yet which made it fade just that much more slowly.

Set 1
Sinatra Drive Breakdown
Tonight’s Episode
Let's Do It Wrong
The Summer
Aselestine
I'll Be Around
Polynesia #1 (Michael Hurley cover)
Apology Letter
Miles Away

Set 2
This Stupid World
Stockholm Syndrome
I Should Have Known Better
Autumn Sweater
Fallout
Today Is the Day
Shaker
Tom Courtenay
Deeper Into Movies
I Heard You Looking (with Alan Sparhawk)

Encore
Time Fades Away (Neil Young cover, with Mark Freeman of NNB)
Dreams (Fleetwood Mac cover with Alan Sparhawk)
Dreaming (Sun Ra cover)

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