Review and photography by John Bentley

Yo La Tengo (YLT) have been around for some 35 years and have 15 studio albums to their credit. Since Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley formed the band they’ve had 14 bass players, but James McNew has occupied that spot since 1992, so they are now a very stable musical trio. When asked later how the band manages to be so relaxed on stage they agree that it’s down to their confidence in each other as musicians.

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Their gigs have a reputation for all being different, so the prospect for tonight is interesting, particularly as it’s billed as ‘The Freewheeling Tour’, where the band play a stripped-down set, with audience interaction. The set-list is fluid, mostly made up on the spot and open to suggestions from the audience. Their music has an intriguingly wide range from poppy covers, to beautiful harmony and melody, to lengthy instrumental experimentation and guitar freakouts. They are musical polymaths who seem to have absorbed influences from many bands and created a style of their own.

With no support act YLT play a set lasting nearly two hours, with music and questions interspersed. As expected there are YLT songs mixed with all sorts of cover songs, covers being a career-long band speciality. However, tonight there is none of the customary swapping of instruments on stage and Kaplan sticks with guitar, McNew with bass and Hubley with a stand-up kit of two drums and a cymbal.

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

The band kick-off with the grinding ‘Sugarcube’, from one of their biggest albums, 1997’s ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’. Kaplan is an axe-wizard and although playing only an acoustic guitar he still makes it sound like a fully-fledged Fender, presumably with the help of electronic gismos. After two songs he invites the first audience question. Why haven’t the band released any live albums? Because we’d have to spend some time listening to the recordings, is the self-deprecating answer.

After two YLT-penned songs, Kaplan declares that’s the end of the planned-show. “Let’s do that Mike Nesmith song”, he suggests to his bandmates and, indeed, the first cover of the evening is The Monkees’ ‘The Door Into Summer’. Cover songs tonight include three from the punk era, starting with The Mekon’s ‘Where Were You’, with McNew making his lead vocal debut of the evening. They also perform a song by Dump, McNew’s solo side-project. Someone asks who would the band like to see covering their songs? Beyoncé, Kaplan suggests, to the amusement of other band members and audience.

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Their favourite place to play? “I gotta go with Leeds”, grins Kaplan. What else could he say? With no keyboards on stage there’s a question about the band’s trademark antique Farfisa organ, featured on fan-favourite song ‘Autumn Sweater’. Kaplan explains it has died, never to be seen again and they will have to use a modern keyboard on stage in future. Following which discussion we get a rendition of the said ‘Autumn Sweater’, transformed in the performance into a softly-sung duet between Kaplan and Hubley, accompanied by acoustic guitar. The audience clearly include some nerdy YLT fans: how did they get the kick-drum sound on that record? They shrug their shoulders and credit the producer of the album, Roger Moutenot – but sometimes it’s just a question of simply pointing a microphone at the instrument, Kaplan declares.

What is the band’s favourite Lou Reed story? As fellow Big Apple residents they often saw Reed around New York, but they were terrified of him and never approached him, says Hubley. The Velvet Underground was a seminal influence on YLT, who played ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ at a festival with Reed in the audience. To their surprise he came running after them and said how much he liked their version. This leads to another cover tonight in the form of the VU’s ‘She’s My Best Friend’, one of YLT’s best-suited covers of the evening.

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

‘Don’t Say A Word (Hot Chicken #2)’ is one of the highlights of the set, with Hubley and Kaplan performing a whispered duet, as she creates subtle percussion with a pair of brushes on the drums. Kaplan declares they are pleased with the rendition, as they don’t always manage to perform the song to their satisfaction. By contrast the set finishes with tortured guitar on a lengthy ‘Blue Line Swinger’. The encore has four fairly straight covers, commencing with Alternative TV’s ‘Action Time and Vision’ and finishing with the wacky countryish ‘Griselda’ (by The Holy Modal Rounders).

Altogether this turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music and chat between band and audience. There’s a real mix of YLT originals and covers, with the setlist largely unpredictable – although maybe they were bound to play ‘Autumn Sweater’. It’s good to see a non-compromising band who stick to their principles and play what they like, while clearly enjoying themselves and pleasing their audience. No two YLT gigs are ever the same, as a hard-core fan tells me afterwards. But they are better when they play more of their own songs, he suggests, and maybe there could have been more music and less chat. I don’t think anyone was really complaining though.

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

Setlist: Sugarcube; Let’s Do It Wrong; The Door Into Summer (Monkees cover); Where Were You (Mekons cover); Slow Down (Dump Cover); Autumn Sweater; Don’t Say A Word (Hot Chicken #2); Drug Test; She’s My Best Friend (Velvet Underground Cover); The River of Water; Periodically Double or Triple; Blue Line Swinger. Encore: Action Time and Vision (Alternative TV cover); Part-Time Punks (Television Personalities cover); You Can Have It All (George McCrae cover); Griselda (Holy Modal Rounders cover).

Yo La Tengo at Leeds Brudenell Social Club

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