Yo La Tengo’s stage glowed blood orange underneath the droopy chandeliers that litter The Fillmore’s ceiling. Old LPs and painted-over CDs hung on curling wires, dangling just over the foreheads of the three musicians on stage. There was something poetic about this display’s juxtaposition of the analog and the digital. Suspended in the hazy concert light of The Fillmore, the circular disks were nearly indistinguishable. It’s an eclectic aesthetic unity, much like Yo La Tengo’s music, one that stands outside of time.
As the night progressed, Yo La Tengo brought to the stage a two-part set that exemplified the band’s progression over three decades of performing and creating music. From its early ‘90s album Painful to its more recently released There’s a Riot Going On, the band’s set showcased its undoubtedly creative way of mixing and manipulating sound. More than that, the band embraced the imperfections and serendipity of its undeniably human performance.
The first half of the night was populated with music that was deceivingly delicate and effectively ambient as it moved through the gaps and crevices of The Fillmore’s packed house on Tuesday evening. In “She May, She Might,” Ira Kaplan led the vocals, but in multiple moments, the trio’s voices layered over one another to create the piece’s sung melodies. Although hushed and airy, these voices slowly grew in loudness until the venue was brimming with the gritty yet warm sound. Yo La Tengo brought to life one of its biggest strengths — its ability to imbue so much complexity into songs that still feel organic and effortless.
Georgia Hubley sat behind the drums with her usual stoic face, watching as Kaplan drew the audience out of “She May, She Might.” Kneeled down in devotion to the pedal board that rested at the edge of the stage, Kaplan bent the last few bars of the song into a swirl of sound, which hypnotized the audience into complete silence.
Yo La Tengo is unique in that the band takes sound and manipulates it into music. That is, the bandmates use a pedal board and play with the kinks in their instruments, utilizing feedback and static and outright playing instruments incorrectly to create unconventional notes. Listening to the band live, it feels as if the band turns its sounds into physical substances that listeners become completely submerged in, performing an ancient form of alchemy onstage.
In “Swing for Life,” the chord progressions weren’t just sounds coming from the amps that lined the stage — they formed an entity that moved in and out of Kaplan’s body as he played guitar. In the intro to “Ashes,” a cacophony of light bird chirping led the way into the keyboard’s twinkling melody, which cut through the heavy bassline plucked by James McNew on the upright bass.
Even when the band performed a cover of Darlene McCrea’s 1964 jazzy bop “My Heart’s Not In It,” Hubley’s soft, wavering voice brought a distinctly indie charm to the cracking choruses she delivered at the edge of the stage. A few measures in, she flubbed a lyric, coughed and — with a sweet chuckle — broke the fourth wall, apologizing to the audience before continuing. In a pitch-perfect moment of comedic irony, the next line was the title of the song, its performance eliciting an eruption of applause and hollering from the audience.
After its release of There’s a Riot Going on, Yo La Tengo consistently shows itself to be technically incredible and stylistically remarkable, but most of all, it’s heartwarmingly human. This element is precisely what allows its music to remain relevant more than three decades after the band’s conception. From the missed notes in choruses to the improvisation that connected each of its songs, there’s an indescribable perfection in each of the little imperfections the band has embraced along the way.