There’s a Riot Going On
American indie rockers Yo La Tengo made a welcome return to the UK and Ireland this month for five gigs in support of their 15th release, There’s a Riot Going On, the band’s first full set of originals since 2013’s Fade.
Formed in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1984, Yo La Tengo are husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley and James McNew.
It’s hard to pin Yo La Tengo down stylistically as over the course of the last 30 or so years, they’ve done everything. This has ranged from soft, quiet pop to nerve (and guitar) shredding feedback-driven rock. The two sets at tonight’s gig in the stunning Church in Leeds are a perfect encapsulation of those two extremes in style. Set 1 and set 2; white and black; day and night – take your pick.
Taking to the Altar
The band have never quite achieved mainstream success but are the quintessential critics’ band and enjoy a loyal and age-spanning following. The crowd here at the Church full of a surprising number of people who weren’t even born when the band started recording.
Tonight’s performance consisted of two sets with a brief intermission and an encore with the usual Yo La Tengo covers. The band are renowned for their encyclopaedic repertoire of live covers.
The general formation on stage tonight is McNew on bass and keyboards with Kaplan on guitar and vocals and Hubley on drums, but the band are such multi-talented musicians that they rarely stayed in those position all evening. Constantly swapping positions and instruments depending on the song or their mood is part of the visual. You could tell that they had a broad plan for the gig but were very happy to just see how the evening progressed and improvise as they went. They are a band totally comfortable with experimentation, not just in the studio, but also on stage.
The massive circular stained glass windows of the Church as backdrop was a stunning frame for the band. It was difficult not to fall into obvious cliches about this being like a religious experience.
As the band entered the stage, there was no acknowledgement of the audience whatsoever and for the bulk of the first set there was no interaction. It was almost as if you were watching a band performing in their garage or practice space. As the first few songs merged into each other with no gaps there was also no audience applause which felt slightly odd at first.
This set was definitely the lighter of the two, with over half of the songs coming from new album There’s a Riot Going On, including languorous album opener ‘You Are Here’. This then mutated into ‘Green Arrow’ from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One – including some fantastically restrained, slow and sweaty slide guitar from Kaplan. There were also some classics such as the beautiful and heart massaging ‘I Feel Like Going Home’ from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. This was a request from the audience, and the band finally acknowledged that they were playing for a crowd of fans at that point. There was then some surprisingly engaging banter given the stand offish entrance.
The first set ended with another one from the new album – ‘Here You Are’ – an indigenous beats-driven dirge that threatened to hypnotise and mesmerise. All it needed was for Kaplan to snap his fingers and say “sleep” and that would probably have done it.
After the short break, the band really turned things up to 11. The way that Kaplan, in particular, was able to get Hendrix-like sounds from an acoustic guitar was quite something to behold. Kicking off set 2 with ‘Dream Dream Away’ to get the audience into an almost trance-like state, the spell was soon broken.
Discordant guitars and the relentless beats of ‘Cherry Chapstick’ was followed by the bass-driven ‘Moby Octopad’. Then it was ‘Shades of Blue’ from the latest album bringing some respite from the aural assault. After another new album track, ‘Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop’ ended the short respite. ‘The Story of Jazz’ from Prisoners of Love really got things going with the audience going absolutely wild. Kaplan was, once again, shredding his guitar maniacally and getting some crazy sounds from it. Fan-favourite ‘Sugarcube’ and ‘The Story of Yo La Tango’ (yes, it is spelled like that!) ended set 2.
Yo La Tengo are renowned for their cover versions. As Kaplan said when coming back on for an encore: “We never play our own tunes at this point in the evening”. However, that wasn’t totally the case tonight, with ‘From a Motel 6’ (an audience request) sandwiched between a Who cover (‘Disguises’) and a Velvet Underground one (‘I Found a Reason’). The latter acting like the cool down after an intensive training session.
Yo La Tengo may never have quite reached the commercial heights that their creativity deserves. However, based on the crowd here tonight they will have a loyal fan base for as long as they continue to enjoy making unique and creative music. There seems no sign of that ending any time soon.
A Spotify Playlist for the gig is available here.
- You Are Here
- Green Arrow
- She May, She Might
- Let’s Do It Wrong
- Periodically Double or Triple
- I Feel Like Going Home
- Here You Are
- Dream Dream Away
- Cherry Chapstick
- Moby Octopad
- Shades of Blue
- For You Too
- Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop
- The Story of Jazz
- The Story of Yo La Tango
- Disguises (The Who cover)
- From a Motel 6
- I Found a Reason (The Velvet Underground cover)