yo la tengo [2009]

Rio Theatre
Santa Cruz, CA
17 October 2009

I was sick. Throat in pain, achy in several places with a slight fever, but I was determined to enjoy an anticipated-for-months full day in Santa Cruz capped off with a show by one of my favorite bands, Yo La Tengo, at The Rio Theatre.

I’d seen them once before, years ago, while visiting friends in Boston. It was a tiny old theater, and they were touring in support of a soundtrack they’d scored for an underwater documentary. An underwater documentary. So while it was great to sit seven feet from them, I was unfamiliar with the music and wasn’t really sure what to make of the overall project.

This time around, they were touring behind their new release, Popular Songs, an incredibly eclectic mix of songs, each seemingly inspired by a different decade in American rock history. Not really my cup of tea, this musical journey, but I’m really never sure how much of each new Yo La Tengo album I’m going to like. Truth be told, I’m kind of a poser fan – the songs I enjoy of theirs, I absolutely love (and have loved for years), but these songs make up a very small percentage of their overall catalog.

So when they broke away from the new album, about three or four songs into their set, and played one of my favorites, “Last Days of Disco”, I was positively thrilled. It was perfectly understated, intimate and just plain wonderful.

Amidst the other selections from Popular Songs, the 70s-inspired dance number and the kitschy 60s romp, there were certainly other highlights, including Georgia Hubley’s emergence from behind her drum kit to sing a couple of quiet, beautiful songs (one of which was a slowed-down, mellow version of “Big Day Coming” from Painful).

And then there was the percussion-focused version of another favorite of mine, “Autumn Sweater”. Sure, it was
an almost entirely different song, but the new perspective, with James McNew completely eschewing his bass (and the song’s central, gripping bass line) to double-up on the drums with Georgia, was interesting and surprisingly welcome.

Finally, there was the first encore, “Tom Cortenay”. In this case, the band stuck almost exactly to the acoustic version featured on A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities. Georgia’s voice was as I always think of it: wholly natural and real, not powerful, unpolished, no artifice whatsoever. The voice of a friend sharing something softly, exposing vulnerability, with complete trust.

Make no mistake: Yo La Tengo is nothing if not eclectic. Popular Songs and this night’s set list are both perfectly indicative of this fact. But if you’re willing to embrace it all out of love, or patiently focus on your subjective gems (fever or no fever), the reward is very simply, bliss.