Yo La Tengo are at their best tonight when their set breaks the mould of what an everyday rock and roll gig is meant to look, and sound, like. Because, despite a reputation as every critic’s favourite band, there’s something about their sprawling repertoire of covers and very, very quiet songs that makes them seem hardly a band at all. Rather than using their gigs as an opportunity to rattle through a backlog of much loved songs (although they do do that) Yo La Tengo’s live sets seem to be conceived primarily as experiments in communicating to the audience the spirit of generosity and curiosity which characterizes their music more than any sound or style does. And so they do two sets, rather than one. They play from half seven until just after ten, with a short break in between, and the conceptual split is pretty neat: quiet, slow songs in the first part, and loud, guitar-shredding ones in the second.
After an instrumental, shoegazey opener which features Georgia Hubley and James McNew doubling up on percussion, with singer Ira Kaplan fiddling through an elaborate guitar jam, the three-piece meander through half a dozen songs from their new album There’s a Riot Going On and a cover or two, without a break, building ambient bridges between the songs and spending these feedback-laced intervals swapping instruments and pacing around the stage fiddling with maracas and guitar peddles. These new songs are quiet, and simple, consisting mostly of keyboard, Hulbert’s orchestral-style percussion and McNew on the double-bass. The vocals are hushed, sometimes whispered, and for the first five or six songs the audience doesn’t make a sound. Only when the feedback subsides enough for the audience to feel that they aren’t intruding does a wave of applause and cultish adoration sweep through the crowd towards the stage, and Kaplan, Hubley and McNew glance up coyly.
After the brief interval the set undergoes a sort of sonic sea change. The twee atmosphere that the first half had instilled is blown away by a quick survey of some the band’s biggest numbers, from 90s albums Painful and I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and the millennial And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The volume is turned up, and after the delicacy of the opening hour Kaplan has seemingly decided that it is time to indulge in some expansive guitar atmospherics. These songs, including Sugarcube and From a Motel 6, are probably their best, but perhaps because I had come expecting surprises they didn’t seemed to come off as well as the newer, stranger songs. In these songs Yo La Tengo resemble a more straightforward band, drowned in distortion and feedback. But the encore return them to their sentimental best, with Georgia Hubert making her way to the front of the stage to sing a beautifully reserved version of You Can Have It All, and closing with a duet with her husband, Kaplan. These songs encapsulate the generosity and love that is involved in the making of this music, and its performance, and close a gig that is totally free of cynicism and jeering, as if the band had somehow communicated the spirit of their project to their obedient audience.