I’m going to be honest: I didn’t know too much about Yo La Tengo before heading to one of their two headline shows in London this February. Because to be fully educated on the indie rock band’s back catalogue is akin to being well-informed on the intricacies of thermodynamics or the variety of plants alive on this earth. Which is to say there’s a lot to learn. Since their formation in 1984, the band have released 15 studio albums as well as the usual nerdgasm kinda guff: film scores, EPs, covers albums; the must-haves for collectors who prize music over getting scurvy.
And so I went into their headline show at east London’s new venue EartH as an amateur rather than the music professional I am supposed to (or at least trying, learning, somewhere one day will) be. Unlike the slightly stoned dads and couples tightly gripping onto one another’s torsos, I’d really only become recently obsessed over just the one album – 1993’s Painful and in particular the song “Nowhere Near” – and that’s why I was here, plus the time I listened to "Well You Better" a whole lot when it came out in 2013. Whack the former on right now and prepare to be washed in dream-pop at its most delicate and thoughtful (the kind of thing that’d fit right into a HBO soundtrack), while the latter is a little more funky – evidence of the bands ability to shift between sounds over decades.
But, of course, the Yo La Tengo show isn’t about me, nor the fact I might have played “Nowhere Near” 40-or-so times on repeat this December. It was about them, the dedicated crowd they’d sustained over several decades despite never truly reaching the big time, what it means to capture fleeting moments and sustain them into one elongated guitar lick that runs on for miles until it feels like physical form has dissipated into nothing else but reverb, yet a reverb that seems to expel, nurture or enhance the kind of emotion that goes beyond words.
Having removed myself from a bathroom that reeked of weed, because, well, this is a band that pairs nicely with pot, I looked down upon hundreds of fans who were experiencing a moment – each one unique to them. Unlike the average rock show ranging from punk to stadium filling epics to sweaty indie music where nearly everyone is on the same level – whether punching people in the face, getting lit, singing along out of key or time; doing whatever – you could almost pick out several vibey microcosms within the macrocosm of Yo La Tengo’s. As the cliche goes, a couple near the front were dancing (and making out) like no one was watching. Close to them – since the venue had both seated and standing areas – were the sit-down sober crews. Then there were the drunkards. Truly, there was everyone and everything you might expect within the spectrum of a white crowd minus maybe anyone over 80 or under 18.
Then again, if you’ll let me swivel back because I’m writing this piece, I still viewed the show through the lens of my own experience. In this case, this had me wondering how Yo La Tengo have sustained themselves for so long. What it is that keeps bringing people back time and time again. A lot of that is simply down to writing good music which is an amalgamation of all the good bits of other good bands; some they’ve influenced by virtue of being around so long and others they’ve perhaps been influenced by – the way Dylan can write poetry by finger-picking his way across a fretboard; the hazy, heady-high of Smashing Pumpkins and Slowdive; even – when founding members (and long-running couple who were together before the band started) Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley singalong together – stuff like The Beautiful South. At one point there’s even a song (“Mr Tough”) that falls close to the territory of swinging and finger-clicking jive, minus the pomp and the dancing and diversity.
Wading through the back catalogue of a band like Yo La Tengo (whose name, btw, is Spanish for “I have it”) is daunting, like picking up an encyclopedia and deciding, ‘hey: let’s start studying today.’ But that’s what makes them an important band. The quintessential critics choice, a cult favourite – the kind of thing you’ll pass onto your children if the world doesn’t burn and you’ve eventually found time to get into their back catalogue. The band didn’t have any support acts for the two London shows. Instead, they played one quieter set, then an interval, then a louder set. I left before they finished, purely because it felt like I’d heard what I already knew: Yo La Tengo make a lot of music – much of which seamlessly slides between genre while still maintaining a dream-like bedrock.
A lot of the people reading this might be thinking, *record store voice* “dude, this is Yo La Tengo. C’mon. Isn’t this obvious?” But I’m still young, there’s a lot of music out there. I have a theory – or if we’re being honest, the world has a theory – that there are gateaway bands. Y’know, stuff like The Strokes or blink-182 or whatever you listened to as a teen that slowly start to open up a new world of music. Then there are the bigger bands, the Radioheads, whatever Creation Records put out in the 80s, some weird thing some weird kid gave you on the back of the bus. Yo La Tengo are a step above all of those. They’re operating in their own league. Days after turning 27, it feels like something I should start getting into. If you haven’t already, then I highly advise you do the same.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.