The eggy smell of sweat filled the air in the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday night, coming in on waves with the breeze from the air ducts. A sold out crowd packed the Cleveland venue to see Yo La Tengo, the collected stench and heat more noticeable than the actual songs for the first hour. The band played two sets – the first quiet and slow and the second as loud as Yo La Tengo gets. One set was boring and the other was pretty great.
To be absolutely clear, the slow set was the boring one.
They started soft like a 60s flower folk band, tossing hushed harmonies into gently noodling guitar lines that floated on the back of James McNew’s airy bass. These songs were intricate and sparse. With music this bare, they couldn’t hide any mistakes, and mostly they didn’t make any. Every small part weaved in and out of each other with expert musicianship. I found it sweetly endearing the few times a vocal harmony came in slightly off-beat from one another. In contrast to the relative perfection of the instrumentation, these small cracks provided a measure of humanity and interest to a set that needed it.
On an individual basis, this slow set was flawless. Just like on Yo La Tengo’s recent release Stuff Like That There, this band’s more serene songs had a meditative quality live. Everything was awash and light until vocals came in and out or guitarist Ira Kaplan went into a short and unexpected guitar solo. The bass was subliminal at times, always present but fading into the back of my mind.
And that’s all cool when listening to songs like these as background music or listening for minute details with the songs turned loud through close-to-eardrums headphones. It did not translate as well to a full set where the lack of tonal variety made the entire set morph into one endless, shapeless song. I liked the song. I just didn’t like it for almost an hour packed among a few hundred smelly hipsters.
Almost immediately, I could tell the second set was going to be a different beast. Georgia Hubley unsheathed a larger drum kit than the one she used during the slow set. McNew traded his admittedly dope-looking upright bass for an electric bass. Similarly, Kaplan donned an electric guitar. These guys were ready to rock.
They started with a roar of noise for sound check, which was already more interesting than anything in their first set, and they started into “Sugarcube,” one of the louder songs in their catalog. Kaplan hunched over his guitar, slamming wildly down across six metal strings like a suicidal bridge jumper crashing head first into impending water.
The songs here were both weirder and poppier, built on stronger melodies and less amorphous noodling. They had a shape to them, pieces I could hold on to and follow. They built these songs on noise that permeated the poppy moments with odd feedback and pedal effects undercutting the melodies to create something harsher and more fascinating.
At one point, the entire band stopped playing and stepped away from their instruments, letting a loop stuck in their effects pedals ring out and linger in a fading wall of sound. It was like shutting off a blaring television to uncover street noise in the background that was always there but had gone unnoticed. With the prevalent instrumentals and vocals cut away, this loop of noise created music all its own.
Even when they went quiet again, it was with fun songs like “Autumn Sweater,” and they never went quiet for more than a few songs in a row. This was much appreciated, but it was also too little too late. Or maybe too much too long.
The boring first set undercut everything in the much better second set. I was tired of their music before the second set even started, and the uncomfortable crowd and smells didn’t help, either. It was too much Yo La Tengo, and it was too much crowd. I felt trapped in there. Somehow I enjoyed the music while simultaneously feeling like the band was torturing me.
When I finally escaped into the winter night, I gasped for oxygen and let the cool air cleanse me of the suffocating place I had just been. I never before felt this way leaving a venue. I’ve seen bad shows where I left feeling disappointed. I’ve seen good shows where I felt uplifted. I’ve never before seen a band who played each individual song to perfection, and yet I felt like I escaped from some place terrible.
I would love to see Yo La Tengo again, but next time I am skipping the quiet set.