Indie experimental noise band Yo La Tengo played two sets at the Baltimore Soundstage last Tuesday. The performance was billed as “An Evening with Yo La Tengo” and promised both an intimate set of the band’s quieter songs and the frantic, kinetic sounds for which they have come to be known.
Husband-and-wife duo Ira Kaplan (vocals and guitar) and Georgia Henley (drums and guitar) formed the band in Hoboken, N.J. in 1984. The band slowly began to grow, adding bassist James McNew in 1992 to create the trio that is usually associated with Yo La Tengo. They are also occasionally joined by on-and-off guitarist Dave Schramm, who most recently recorded their latest album Stuff Like That There with them.
Yo La Tengo’s sound has varied over their more than 20 years of performing, and they’ve played alongside bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement. They’ve released albums that are considered seminal to indie rock, including Painful (1993), I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997) and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000). Their music has been described as noise rock, indie (as precursors to grunge) and even shoegaze during the ‘90s. They’ve traveled everywhere, but they continue to play in the moment.
The Baltimore Soundstage served them well because it was open enough to allow the sounds of their first set to float through the room for a more atmospheric feel yet it also was intimate enough for the loud, emotional songs of their second set. There weren’t any openers, and Yo La Tengo arrived at 8 p.m.
A good amount of the audience was older than 30, which gave the performance a reunion-like feeling. The clamors of the crowd let it be known that these people have been fans of Yo La Tengo for a long time, and that made the cheers in between songs feel more earnest than at other shows. At that, every song, no matter how obscure, was cheered on. These were folks who had ripped through Yo La Tengo’s discography to a great extent.
The first set was acoustic and featured Kaplan on guitar (switching between a variety of guitars), McNew on double bass and Henley on drums. They played a number of songs across their discography including one of their more recently famous ones, a cover of English new wave band The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love.” Henley sang the vocals for this song, which was featured on their most recent album Stuff Like That There (which served as a quasi-sequel to their 1990 hit Fakebook, a mix of original content and covers). Another highlight was their cover of ‘60s folk duo The Holy Modal Rounder’s “Griselda.” The emotionality of the song resonated with the audience.
After the final song of their first set, they took a 30-minute break before returning for their louder set. The second song they played was a deeper cut from their discography, a howling experimental freakout from their 1995 album, Electr-O-Pura, titled “False Alarm.” During the song, Kaplan rushed over to an electronic keyboard and played harsh discordant chords.
They followed this with a performance of “From Motel 6,” a slow-moving, distortion-heavy cut from Painful. Throughout the song, the signature guitar freakouts that Kaplan has become known for entered the fray as he rocked out to the cheers of fans.
A real highlight was when they performed “I Heard You Looking,” an instrumental, guitar-driven gem off Painful. The song is essentially one long high-energy guitar solo that starts a minute and a half in. Halfway through the performance, Kaplan took off his guitar and handed it to the audience. He sat on the edge of the stage with the microphone in hand and watched as audience members strummed and made noise.
Another great moment was the band’s performance of “The Crying of Lot G,” a more emotional song for this second set.
“What did I miss here? / What can’t you take anymore? / Expecting a whisper / I hear the slam of a door,” Kaplan sang at the opening of the performance, establishing the lovelorn nature of the song.
The band left the stage after a minute of cheers before returning for an encore of a few more songs. This encore included one of their most popular songs, a cover of Anita Bryant’s “My Little Corner of the World” with vocals by Georgia Henley.