Before Pitchfork, before Sufjan, before blogs, before the ubiquitous rise of “indie,” there was something called college rock. In the ’80s bands like R.E.M. and Guided By Voices played their music to packed campus clubs and bars, inspiring a generation of students to support their local music scenes and turn off MTV. Yo La Tengo is a college rock band in the most complimentary sense of the title. They have churned out consistently great records while maintaining their artistic integrity, gaining new levels of respect among university listeners with each passing fall.
When Yo La Tengo rolled into Ann Arbor Wednesday night the setting could not have been more picturesque. The beautiful Michigan Theater was glowing yellow, alcohol flowed freely from the bar, hipsters spilled out into the street for last cigarettes and even the original generation of Yo La Tengo fans were well represented – a simple count of the balding heads in the audience made this more than apparent. All that was needed was a soundtrack to fit the ambiance, and if nothing else, Yo La Tengo provided that.
Their song selections spanned the entirety of their career, but the early part of their set focused on their latest album, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” was a true highlight of the night. Ira Kaplan’s Hendrix-with-a-Jew-fro guitar antics coalesced perfectly with the hypnotic drum and bass combo of Georgia Hubley and James McNew. The song’s menacing tone quickly gave way to a number of the band’s lighter tunes, such as “Bean Bag Chair” and “Mr. Tough.” The latter featured Kaplan’s surprisingly nimble falsetto amid a warm background of keyboard and cowbell.
The set progressed smoothly, with Kaplan’s wry sense of humor adding much to the trio’s stage presence. They played favorites like “Autumn Sweater” and “Little Honda” from their classic I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One, but it all seemed a little too predictable. The band did everything that one could expect from listening to their records and it amounted to a show that was merely pleasant, not mind-blowing.
Yo La Tengo is a band that should be held to a higher standard. They have made more than dozen records of affecting and inventive music, some of which ranks among the best of the ’80s and ’90s. Their songs can be life-changing, heartbreaking and sometimes downright abrasive, but never boring. On Wednesday night the band was caught between these two extremes and it made for a show that entertained but failed to captivate.
Yo La Tengo
At the Michigan Theater