There can be few bands more suited to a neatly divided acoustic/electric set than long-running Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo. Throughout their career they’ve thrived on mixing expansive, distortion-drenched jams with a more mellow, classically tuneful sense of songcraft, often bridging the two by way of lilting fuzz-pop anthems like ‘Sugarcube’ and ‘From a Motel 6’. Indeed, in amongst the hidden gems of their vast and endlessly rewarding back catalogue are numerous alternate versions of their songs that reflect the band’s ability to flit between genres and styles with ease, whether it’s the sparser, stripped-of-all-momentum take on ‘Cherry Chapstick’ or the gently buoyant acoustic version of ‘Tom Courtenay’.
Their most recent album, this year’s Fade, focuses on the band’s more concise, song-oriented sensibilities to a greater extent than any of their albums since 2003’s Summer Sun: perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that they haven’t really pulled off one of those epic noise-jams since 2006’s extraordinary, near-mythic album-closer ‘The Story of Yo La Tango’; perhaps just a reflection of where the trio are at philosophically and musically. Either way, cuts from the album pepper the acoustic first half of the show. The night kicks off with an almost audaciously hushed version of ‘Ohm’ – Fade’s opening track – which nonetheless can’t help but feel like a prelude to the version proper that we know is coming later. The opening batch of songs in general – which include a wistful acoustic take on ‘Paddle Forward’ – feel just a small bit lacking in engagement, despite the Vicar Street crowd’s immaculately attentive demeanour.
The gig really comes alive with a trio of songs that epitomise the autumnal, mature vibe of Fade: ‘The Point Of It’, a delightfully measured number that’s the latest in a lineage of lounge-y Yo La Tengo numbers; a gorgeous version of ‘Cornelia and Jane’, its gentle melancholic swell sounding more poignant than ever; and ‘I’ll Be Around’, which shows that Ira Kaplan can dazzle with his fingerpicking as well as with his more (in)famous guitar-shredding moves. The first half of the night ends with the ambient version of ‘Big Day Coming’; Georgia Hubley coaxing restrained waves of feedback that whet the appetite perfectly for the onslaught to come.
And come it does: the division of the set really seems to amp up the energy levels when the band do eventually cut loose, Kaplan in particular seeming like a man unleashed. Even the comparatively clean folk-rock keening of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is given a lashing of guitar noise midway through. The steady krautrock pulse of ‘Little Things’ retains its hypnotic feel but is expanded on and used as a springboard for a more muscular reading than on record, while non-album cut ‘Super Kiwi’ is a sharp, clamorous shoegaze-esque thrill. The shuffling organ-led duo of ‘Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House’ (one of the pleasant surprises of the night) and ‘Autumn Sweater’ ease the pace and give the eardrums a breather; less interesting are the garage-pop-by-numbers ‘Nothing To Hide’ and Fade’s sweeping-album-closer-by-numbers ‘Before We Run’. On the other hand, ‘Ohm”s second appearance of the night lives up to its status as arguably the band’s best song of recent years, a hymn to acceptance (stoicism even?) that paradoxically rings with defiance, its closing ‘resisting the flow’ refrain accompanied by Ira drumming on the back of his guitar before hoisting it over his head.
If there’s a bit of a (fanboy) grumble it’s that much of the non-Fade setlist choices are similar to the last time the trio played in Dublin – it’s probably a good complaint to have about a band in the scheme of things (Yo La Tengo could conceivably play at least six completely different sets and satisfy with each), but some more deep/surprise cuts along the lines of ‘Tony Orlando’s House’ would have been nice. That’s rendered somewhat moot by an incandescent version of ‘Blue Line Swinger’, its slow organ drone build, Sonic Youth-esque detuned groove (sped up somewhat) and unhinged fretwork marking one of the high points of the night.
As they come back out for the encore, Ira wrly announces that this will be their tactic from now on: announce a gig, cancel it and come back a few months later (the Fade tour was initially scheduled for a Vicar Street stop-off in March before bad weather put paid to it). He then takes requests from two audience members in the front row, one in a Beatles T-shirt and the other in a vintage YLT T-shirt. The first request is met with a superb Georgia-led run-through of ‘Today Is The Day’ (the faster-paced EP version) and the latter – after a brief group consultation (“We don’t usually take requests for songs that aren’t ours but we might have to make an exception for that one”) – leads to a raucous cover of The Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner’ which briefly (maybe Lou Reed is still on our minds) sounds like it’s about to break out into ‘Sister Ray’. Instead we come full circle as the trio push in to centre-stage and take a much more subdued tack for their cover of Brian Wilson’s ‘Farmer’s Daughter’. It’s the kind of stylistic switch that sums up the enduring long-term appeal of this most treasured of bands.
Photo: Ste Murray