If any band were going to miss a scheduled start time due to a backstage discussion about past members of Jefferson Starship, then Yo La Tengo fit the profile. Now fourteen albums into a thirty year career, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have proven one of the more musically literate bands of their generation; assimilating an array of genres and influences yet consistently sounding like no one other than Yo La Tengo. Their most recent album Stuff Like That There – like 1990’s Fakebook – saw the band take on a selection of covers, reimagining’s of their own past songs, and new material. Indie rock, country, soul, funk, psychedelia, and good old fashioned pop are all accounted for on that record, and so it is tonight in The National Concert Hall.
Several pieces of artwork of varying sizes and styles are mounted around the band, from portraiture to abstract, still life to landscape, and what looks like a gig poster for The Clean. Their largely static position within these pieces seems part of the gallery – an impeccable musical miscellany curated by a living exhibit. The band’s last Dublin visit was to play a bipartite show in Vicar Street, an acoustic front end followed by a full-on guitar wrangling second half. The split structure remains, but tonight is a more prolonged low-key affair, with Kaplan reined in on acoustic, McNew on upright bass, and Hubley upstanding behind a snare and tom.
While the sound has been pared back, the band has expanded to a quartet on this outing, with Dave Schramm assuming lead guitar duties. The two guitars seem almost discordant in the way they dance around each other on ‘The Ballad Of Red Bucket’. Schramm bends notes with his whammy bar, Kaplan with his fingers, climbing the frets and manipulating the pitch of their own mid-nineties album track.
“This is a New Wave number” says Kaplan, to smiling disagreement from McNew. “More goth to you?” he enquires, before a folky ‘Friday I’m In Love’. Darlene McCrea’s ‘My Heart’s Not In It’ binds country and doo-wop, and Hubley’s country croon transforms The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Butchie’s Tune’, as Kaplan’s does The Velvet Underground’s ‘Over You’. When his soft vocal carries gently on Great Plains’ ‘Before We Stopped to Think’, and Schramm’s echoing solo peels away from the rhythmic layers, it almost seems as if Lambchop are in the room. But whatever the cover, it’s all so unmistakably Yo La Tengo. What’s most marked, though, is that tonight’s set is more than a little bit country – Appalachia to Nashville and everything in between.
Schramm emulates lapsteel on a slow, tender ‘Awhileaway’, before producing the real deal for Ernie Chaffin’s ‘Feelin’ Low’. His playing is both complement and counterpoint to the vocal harmonies, the third layer to Kaplan’s low timbre and Hubley’s higher pitch. Where her voice retains its honey coating, Kaplan’s takes on a characteristic crackle on the high notes. It’s a dichotomy that Schramm matches, whether hunched over scraping out a solo or deftly accentuating the melancholy of Hank Williams. One of the more remarkable vocal moments comes not from the duets, but when bassist James McNew sings – as good as his early-set ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ is, though, it’s ‘Autumn Sweater’ that provides one of those moments when the split-second silence between the final note and the first handclap snaps you out of a sonically-induced stupor.
“We’re gonna sing you a little lullaby then we’ll bid you a fond farewell”, Kaplan tells us, and after some discussion about how it begins, Johnny Cash’s ‘I Still Miss Someone’ puts to bed one last, longing vocal from Hubley. A two-part set of acoustically-driven Yo La Tengo is certainly successful in cultivating a sustained mood, and it’s a languorous and lovely trail through their shared musical anthology – not as absorbing, maybe, as that Vicar Street visit a few years back, but still a pleasure…always a pleasure