Yo La Tengo

A large portion of Yo La Tengo’s not-quite-sold out Manchester audience seemed to leave it dangerously close to the 8pm start time before arriving. You would’ve guessed the turnout was going to be disappointing judging from how empty The Ritz was just half an hour before show time, but it was mostly full by the start, and it was busy enough by the interval that getting to the bar became semi-difficult. Perhaps people just didn’t know that Yo La Tengo’s opening act was Yo La Tengo. They firstly took to the stage and sat in front of three cartoony model trees, for a whisper quiet acoustic set. Before returning for an electric (“JUDAS!”) set that slowly increased in volume, and about half of which consisted of long abstract guitar freak-outs.

But before he could get to those distorted heroics, Ira Kaplan led the band through a sparse take of “Ohm” with a thin guitar line. They stripped their new album’s opening sprawling epic bare, and all sang its sweet cooing “ooo ooo oos” in a hushed mumble. James McNew strapped his bass on for a similarly serene “Two Trains”; his thick notes resonated deeply beneath Georgia Hubley’s soft brush strokes and Kaplan’s airy guitar jangle. Kaplan playfully joked, whilst reminiscing about their soundcheck-less first tour, that the band are now “a well-oiled rock machine”, and their first set was quiet enough to let you know that the venue’s doors definitely aren’t. As the squeaking hinges temporarily became an unofficial members for “Season of the Shark” from 2003’s Summer Sun. Hubley missed her husband’s queue for acoustic set closer “Big Day Coming”, but followed McNew’s bass line to properly form the gorgeous Painful opener, which the trio somehow made it sound even more naked than the album version. It’s the perfect first set closer, as the two distinctive quiet and loud versions from the 1993 album seem to be the genesis of this distinctive quiet and loud set idea.

Yo La Tengo have the perfect discography to pull off this concept. Creating one set from their extensive and sonically varied back catalogue would result in many songs being missed out if they wanted to keep an even momentum going. But splitting them up allows for the band to show both of their sides, part unhurried acoustic and part hellfire guitar distortion. The acoustic set was pretty but the bump in volume at the beginning of the second set was very welcome, it was almost a revelation when Kaplan started to play with amplification. You knew they meant business the second you noticed that they’d changed their attire from sweaters to shirts during the interval.

Actual drumsticks didn’t appear onstage until they played I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’s “Moby Octopad”. Hubley shuffled them to Mcnew’s heavy bass leads, whilst Ira played keys and produced sounds that somehow went from jazzy piano chords, to an otherworldly organ riff, and then ended on a sprightly key melody. McNew joined the rhythm section with a snare and maracas for “Autumn Sweater” and “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”, as Ira and Georgia showed that their hushed voices could still be heard even with some volume beneath them. A rocking “Is That Enough” continued the electric sets slow increase in tempo and volume, and a solid rhythm section on “Before We Run” set the stage for Kaplan’s first guitar freak-out.

An electric repeat of “Ohm” completely eclipsed the earlier version, the driving beat and volume lent it far more power than the exhaled acoustic version did. Kaplan’s earlier solos were revealed to be mere warm ups just minutes into second set closer “I Heard You Looking”. He conveyed more emotion through his instrument in the extended Painful instrumental than through any of his vocals. The lower he let his guitar slip past his waist the better his playing sounded, he eventually gave up on even wearing his strap and just waved the screeching instrument through an invisible fog of distortion as he deliberated untuned it and seamlessly switched to another guitar to start the chaos anew. He returned triumphantly to the main riff resembling a one man Marquee Moon.

With the arc and progression of their two set experiment complete, their encores provided a reset. They played two covers, “You guys like London right?” asked Ira, sparking a choir of playful boo’s before they played a faithful punk rock take on Alternative TV’s “Action Time Vision”. The second cover was the first of two requests that closed the night, someone had apparently requested their cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” through email, and they closed with Ira asking, almost demanding, that someone he picked out of the front row request a song. Despite the shouts for “Sugarcube” she requested “From a Motel 6”. Which they played in a stripped down form, closing the night on the note that was far lower key, and felt almost quaint, compared to the noisy and inspiring “I Heard You Looking” that we’d seen just over 10 minutes before. There’s kind of no comparison to seeing Ira Kaplan play and abuse his electric guitar. All of their styles went over well as they segued from their quietest to their loudest material, and the heights that Yo La Tengo reached wouldn’t have been anywhere near as beautiful without that slow and steady climb