I Was There: Yo La Tengo is Better Than Your Favorite Band

Posted on May 16, 2013

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First, a claim that will likely lead most of you to seek future counsel on musical inquiries elsewhere: The finest rock ‘n’ roll band in all the land is comprised of an unassuming middle-aged couple from New Jersey and their Big & Tall friend, James. They call themselves Yo La Tengo, and last Friday night at the Michigan Theater, they altered my entire worldview.

Obviously Coldplay or U2 or The E-Street Band or goddamn Mumford & Sons is a better band than Yo La Tengo, right? Bigger, not better. Do they even have any big hits? Irrelevant. Yo La Tengo is the band that’s simply the best at being a band. After a quarter-century together, they exude a level of collective comfort, evolutionary spirit and detailed musicianship that far exceeds that of any of their contemporaries.

Anxious as we are to witness this greatness, we’re late. It’s idiotic, I live around the corner. Blame the Blind Pig, the innumerable times I’ve arrived well after doors to learn that the openers will begin in an hour. When the theater house lights come on to signal intermission, two lovely songs after we’ve arrived, our neighbors in the aisle display genuine sympathy for us, having caught just the tail end of “the quiet set.”

We feel weird, incomplete. “What’d we miss?” I ask them. One of them, clearly a fan, begins to list the individual songs. Impressive, but not helpful. It’s not as if I’m going to pretend I caught the set; I’m after an abstraction now. I try a different approach. “How are you feeling right now?” He doesn’t hesitate. “Magical.” So, there you have it. Whisper quiet at times, the front half of Yo La Tengo’s performance, magic.

Synths, organs, guitar pedals and a beat up Fender Jazzmaster appear on stage. The audience leaks palpable enthusiasm. The loud set! I’m relieved that we haven’t missed a single spastic, drony, meandering note from Ira Kaplan’s guitar. This is what I had in mind anyway—the live renderings of the Velvet Underground’s longest-tenured disciples. Our neighbor can’t wait. He’s said “Ira Kaplan guitar freakout” a half dozen times.

It’s my first Yo La Tengo show, but to an extent, I know what I’m in for. The coolest kids I grew up with in New Jersey were quick to see right through mainstream grunge’s corny bullshit. For the sniffling indie kids, Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo are hometown heroes. Painful and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One have provided the soundtrack for many a ride to a show at Maxwell’s (essentially the band’s home court).

The lights dim. Clearly I’ll be able to make more objective observations going forward, seeing as I’ve made it inside the building, but after a few songs I understand that I’ll only want to describe this night in abstract terms. I’m dreaming. At times I’m unsure if my eyes are opened or closed. It doesn’t matter what this night, and this band, looks like. I’m nine years old, riding too close to the hedges, flipping over my handlebars. I’m pressing my feet through the floor. Eight thousand fingers intermittently tremble and clench in an American theater. We all release in unison.

We start cheering before we can even stand. The loud set has ended, the most dynamic, improvisational, multi-dimensional hour of rock music you can ever expect to hear. The crowd gets their encore, then another. Six more songs total, including two stunning Kinks covers, back-to-back. After the final song, Kaplan is gracious but firm.

Yo La Tengo has exhausted our physical resources.We throw on our jackets and fall in line. My friend Thabiso, air drumming one particular riff (as he will all weekend), looks like he’s sparred a few rounds. We get outside, both waiting for the other to speak first and we realize what’s just happened.

Featured in The Michigan Daily, 2/14/13

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Posted in: I Was There