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21st April 2023

Creating a transitive space in This Stupid World: Yo La Tengo play New Century

New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo return to Manchester for their first show in the city in five years.
Creating a transitive space in This Stupid World: Yo La Tengo play New Century

With two sets and array of songs from sixteen albums to perform, Yo La Tengo strolled onto New Century’s stage with little introduction or build up. As the lights dimmed, they walked on in jeans and t-shirts and begun without flare or call to attention. Their casual and modest nature transpired to a performance that was brooding and understated, a transcendent scene of beauty and reflection. Despite the less than grandeur entrance, the agley diverse crowd were completely transfixed on the group.

Whilst lead singer Ira Kaplan and guitarist is conventionally the frontman of the group, the three swap roles and instruments throughout their set, so it’s hard to say decisively that the group is fronted by any one of them. Instead, like the revolving interlinked shapes forming the spotlights behind them on the stage, the three create their own atmospheres that divulge and connect to one another, creating a kind of musical trinity.

They opened with ‘Sinatra Drive Breakdown’, the first track off their most recent album This Stupid World. James McNew provides a heavy and constant bass alongside Georgia Hubby on drums. Over the top Ira Kaplan plays a janky and erratic whirr of guitar. It’s heavy and driving, but also seeps down into a calmer melody. Even though Kaplan flitters close to descending into chaos, the song remains held down under the consistency of the drums and bass line, balancing the line between calm and chaos echoed by breathy refrains of ‘Until we all break’.

The start of their performance feels like a reflection of the band’s long musical career; a rounding up of trials and tribulations, but also the sweetness of life. Their second song ‘Tonight’s Episode’ off This Stupid World, is also a heavier, grungier song , met with zany lyrics listing all the things that they can do. ‘I can walk the dog’ and ‘ I can show you yo-yo trick’ are asserted as if to prepare the audience for the various faces and forms of Yo La Tengo. The song trails off into a noisy blur with intricate guitar melodies plucked over.

The next few songs are soft, melodic romances, calling to a well-loved form of Yo La Tengo song. Songs like the yearning ‘Madeline’ from their 1993 album Painful and the ruminative ‘The Point Of It’ from 2013’s Fade, along with the next several in their set follow a common Yo La Tengo formula.

Soft acoustic guitar is met with a dreamy bassline and barely uttered vocals, with each capturing a various shade of loving and heartache. The audience were held transfixed by the spaces these songs carved out, watching in silent awe. While the silence may have come from the fact that only varying proportions of the audience may have recognised each song depending on which version of Yo La Tengo they have discovered, it is fair to say they stood hooked onto the sheer beauty of their performances all the same.

They finish the first half of their performance with the heavy yet shimmery ‘Miles Away’, and dreamily bring the first half to a meditative close.

After a short break, their performance opens again with the title track from This Stupid World. This time the band plunges the audience into the grungier songs of their collection. The band display increasingly more eccentric iterations of noise rock, alongside darker acoustic tracks like ‘Barnaby, Hardly Working ‘.

Their crashing drums and outbursts of screeching guitar reach their pinnacle in the grandiose 12 minute song, ‘The Story of Yo La Tengo.’  A true descent into chaos, relinquishing themselves completely to the sound. Kaplan leads the band into mad and rapturing performance. He wields his guitar playing up and down the neck, swinging and falling over it. The madness builds and falls back into the murkiness like a fish jumping in and out of the ocean.

The audience has slowly been brewing into an angsty energy and by halfway through they are completely ravenous. At one point Kaplan hands his guitar to and audience member and runs off stage, leaving in the noise to permeate. As he returns, he further descends into a chaotic performance, jumping and crashing and leading the other two into a crescendo where them stomp and crash to the end of song. They crack their second smiles of the performance, finally embracing their modest rockstardom.

Yo La Tengo return for their encore after an enraptured audience effort of synchronised stomps calling for their return. Given an endless discography they could pull from, it’s odd that the band choose to perform three covers for their encore. However, their part-cover album Stuff Like That There gives the choice a little sense; they clearly wear their influences on their sleeves. For their last song they play ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ by Daniel Johnston, a nineties contemporary and a clear influence on the quirkier side of their lyrics. All covers are truly Yo La Tengo-fied, leaving the audience lingering on in their stupid world.

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