Review: Yo La Tengo At Royal Festival Hall

Art & Culture

Tonight, Yo La Tengo have invited us into their living room for a very special gig. OK, it’s actually the Royal Festival Hall, but the New Jersey band have no trouble turning this spacious venue into an intimate crucible. A large patterned rug lies at the centre of the stage, and spray-painted vinyl is suspended from the ceiling. Opening with the soft drones of ‘You Are Here’, the trio ride its groove for a while, allowing latecomers ample time to find their seats. They seem almost not to notice the large audience, as though they’re just jamming in their practice space back home.

Yo La Tengo play for two and a half hours with no support act, their set split into two halves by a short interval. This well-received move allows them to explore their catalogue in depth without neglecting the new stuff. Indeed, the first half is largely given over to material from the band’s fifteenth studio LP, There’s a Riot Going On, released earlier this year. The set captures that album’s meditative, calming nature where the individual songs become less important than the curation of a particular atmosphere. The dynamics are smooth, and the energy levels remain at a low plateau. The new, more impressionistic material is definitely a success, but there’s also time for hushed bedroom pop in the form of ‘Pablo and Andrea’ and a particularly lovely rendition of ‘Big Day Coming’.

Twenty minutes in and I’m struck by the fluidity of everything. Drones and feedback seize the air between songs, and the three band members have already switched positions and instruments multiple times. This happens most exaggeratedly to comic effect during one song when Ira Kaplan shuffles over to the drums every sixteen bars, just to hit the crash cymbal before returning to the keyboard. Everyone has their turn on each instrument – James McNew takes to the mic for a rare lead vocal on the dreamy ‘Black Flowers’, and even Ira ends up sitting behind the drum kit during the encore, apparently to his surprise as much as the audience’s.

The second half is very different and takes the form of a crescendo, starting with a sprinkling of louder classics and building to a series of inspired noise workouts. The contrast is terrific – Ira in particular seems to relish making the noise of a thousand pedalboard sadists. The last five songs are a masterclass – ‘Autumn Sweater’ feels like the gently rippling eye of the storm before a rapturously received ‘Deeper Into Movies’ finds Ira absolutely shredding the fuck out of his fretboard. His vocals dovetail with Georgia Hubley’s on fan favourite ‘Tom Courtenay’, which perfectly displays the pure pop instincts that have always been such a crucial part of this band’s DNA.

At the conclusion of ‘Ohm’, Ira hands his guitar to someone in the front row and motions to him to go wild, not that the guy needs any encouragement. The resulting noise freakout is kept in check by Georgia’s steady drumming, which segues brilliantly into main set closer ‘I Heard You Looking’. This instrumental epic that closes 1993's Painful (my favourite YLT album, for what it’s worth) provides an opportunity for the band to really stretch out. It's a real fireworks display, and a million miles away from the sleepy meditations that opened the set. I’m so enthralled that I forget to look at my watch, but their version tonight must have been a good 20 minutes long.

An alternately light-hearted and emotional encore finds the trio – perhaps almost as renowned for reinterpreting others’ material as they are at crafting their own low-key classics – drawing for covers by Television Personalities and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and with that they’re on their way. I leave surrounded by a warm glow, determined to see Yo La Tengo again as soon as possible, most likely with an entirely different setlist.

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