Burgeoning musicians, take note. Do not, I repeat, do not start a show as Yo La Tengo began their show Monday night at the Beachland Ballroom. It takes a special band, and Yo La Tengo are such a band, to lead a near sold-out performance with two moody, slow moving songs, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. For you, burgeoning musician, this is a sure fire way to quickly lose the interest of a crowd and an iron clad guarantee not to get invited back to the venue. For Georgia Hubly, Ira Kaplan, James McNew of Yo La Tengo, however, a trio who’ve earned the respect and trust of their fans for being tasteful, tuneful, and most importantly, talented musicians, leading with “Here to Fall” and “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” was their way of sending a clear reminder to the crowd, “We know what we’re doing. You’ve stuck with us for 20 years, through a series of stylistic changes, and you keep coming back. Believe in us one more time.”
Sure enough, as the feedback from “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” faded from the Beachland stage, Yo La Tengo set out at doing what they do best, which is what ever style of popular music they decide to play at that moment. Drawing largely from their most recent album, Popular Songs, the band shifted between Brit-Pop (“Avalon, or Someone Very Similar”), Motown (“If It’s True”), ’70s soft rock (“I’m On My Way”), lounge music (“Periodically Double or Triple”), and many things in between. Kaplan moved from guitar to keyboards and back, while McNew, primarily on bass, chipped in on extra percussion, a second guitar, or lead guitar, depending on the style. When the mood was delicate, Kaplan and McNew played with the seriousness of surgeons, coaxing tones as smooth as violins out of their electric guitars, and when the song called for a little extra oomph, Kaplan shredded as if he was in the midst of an epileptic fit.
The three song suite of “Deeper Into Movies,” “Nothing to Hide,” and “Tom Courtenay,” bristled with energy, rattled with static, and emanated ecstatically across the room. Peer through the crowd and you could see couples holding hands, happy fans jumping up and down, and dancing and smiles during the jangly pop of the latter two numbers. Close your eyes, and the sound of Kaplan’s guitar dominated. “Deeper Into Movies,” in particular, was one shrieking, hissing riff after another, with McNew and Hubley somehow able to keep their complex, syncopated rhythm in tact.
It would turn out to be but a preview of what was to follow — The 20-minute extendo-jam version of 1993’s “I Heard You Looking.” Kaplan’s guitar alternately sounded like a 1964 McCulloch chainsaw versus the thickest of redwoods, the emergency broadcast system in desperate need of emergency repairs, a blender vainly attempting to puree a bunch of squeaky toys, an air siren, whale songs, and random static picked up from the radio dial. Depending on your musical background, it was either the longest 20 minutes of your life or the sweetest sounds you’ve ever heard. For the Beachland crowd it was the latter, as time and again, McNew and Hubley would ease Kaplan back down, and return to the song’s simple, eight note melody, only to have him rip again.
At this point, the encore was but a formality. Sure, it was sweet to hear Yo La Tengo cover the Electric Eels track, “Accident,” but many in the crowd had already made up their mind — Their faith in the Hubley, Kaplan and McNew had been redeemed, as Monday night was, and most likely will forever be, the band’s finest Cleveland appearance. It was a sentiment I heard time and again while mingling outside the venue after the show. I didn’t argue. I agreed.
Yo La Tengo Setlist: Cleveland 10.05.09
1. Here to Fall
2. More Stars Than There Are in Heaven
3. Avalon or Someone Very Similar
4. Autumn Sweater
5. All Your Secrets
7. By Two’s
8. If It’s True
9. I’m On My Way
10. I Feel Like Going Home
11. Periodically Double or Triple
12. Deeper Into Movies
13. Nothing to Hide
14. Tom Courtenay
15. I Heard You Looking
16. Accident (Electric Eels Cover)
17. Hungry (Paul Revere and The Raiders Cover, introduced as not a Sammy Hagar song)
18. Black Hole (Urinals Cover)
19. Did I Tell You
20. Don’t Have to be So Sad