Yo La Tengo
Thalia Hall; Chicago

On Friday, March 30, which is both Good Friday and Passover, my brother and I, along with around 1,300 other people, spend the evening seeing Yo La Tengo at Thalia Hall, a beautiful, historic venue in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. This is my first time at the venue, which was built in 1892 on a design by architects Frederick Faber and William Pagels, and was modeled after the Prague opera house. The Bedford limestone in the building’s exterior, the iron window shutters, sheet-metal balcony fronts, and ceiling detail have made the building easy to preserve over the years, and give it a sense of aged cordiality most venues today don’t have.

Thalia Hall has been around for a long time and has held up nicely, much like Yo La Tengo, who released their 15th full-length studio album about two weeks before the show. I’d seen Yo La Tengo about five or six times prior, and had always been satisfied by their shows, which tend to offer a hearty blend of intimate bedroom-pop and hard-hitting noise rock. As you may know, I gave the new album, There’s a Riot Going On, 3 out of 5 stars, arguing it’s at times compelling, but a little boring. That said, I do like the album, and I was curious leading up to the show about what kind of experience to expect.

We step onto the crowded floor at about 7:45, finding a couple of beers and a very nice spot before the curtains come up at 8. I’d read earlier in the day there would be no opener, and that Yo La Tengo would be playing two full sets, with one intermission. Still reeling from an ankle injury, I’m anxious about standing for a potentially lengthy show, but the beer and generally positive vibe from the crowd give me the energy I need.

Yo La Tengo’s first set is mostly quiet, which was expected. They open the show with a drone on the keyboard and guitar, which quickly brings the static nature of the new record to life. The songs are mostly from the new album, but there are also a few classics that are played in the style of the new record. For one, bassist James McNew offers a brilliantly scaled-back version of his ’00s-era highlight “Black Flowers,” which finds Ira Kaplan singing the woodwind parts that were orchestrated in the original. It’s a beautiful and satisfying performance. On her new songs, but really on every song, Georgia Hubley exudes elegance and grace in her drumming and singing.

They also offer a new, folky version of “Big Day Coming,” a deep-cut classic that’s already seen two disparate, but excellent versions (both on Painful). Known for re-orchestrating their own songs, Yo La Tengo essentially have a catalogue much more far-reaching than the number of songs and albums they’ve released, because, as they demonstrate repeatedly, each composition offers infinite possibilities. In the second half, they will play the aggressive, EP version of “Today Is The Day,” another fantastic dual-cut.

Kaplan closes out the first half with some pedalboard noise, and then releases the crowd for a few minutes. Some get closer to the stage, others go back for beer. I go find a ledge to rest my aching foot on for a few minutes, and then get another round of beers. The second set is considerably louder than the first. “Out of the Pool” features an excruciating noise interlude, while with “From a Motel 6,” Kaplan creates a detuned guitar drone and then solos over it, filling Thalia Hall with mountainous reverb and piercing wails. My brother, who hasn’t listened to much Yo La Tengo, says the extended jams of “From a Motel 6” and the following “Here to Fall” remind him of the Grateful Dead, and he’s impressed all three musicians are multi-instrumentalists. After “Here to Fall” ends, he says, “They weeded out all the bitches in their first set and came with the hard shit later.” I agree. Closing out the second set with “I Heard You Looking” is an epic move, the band turning the song’s simple progression into an ecstatic, mantric sierra of commotion.

Yo La Tengo produce a tremendous amount of sound for a trio — most new groups would require three guitarists to craft the textures Kaplan achieves. It’s a huge experience; they played for three hours, a feat musicians like Bruce Springsteen and The Grateful Dead are well-known for, and I would submit that a Yo La Tengo show is as fulfilling as one by any of those musicians. Sure, some of their new music is a little boring, but watching them perform it live is still an engaging experience. I’ve never understood people who pass on seeing a band they like because they didn’t love the band’s new album. As Yo La Tengo prove, a great band is going to do a great show, no matter what they’re playing.

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