Over the Weekend: Yo La Tengo and Sic Alps at the Fillmore
Better than: Art rock is supposed to be.
"All I can say is that I hope you all get an opportunity to play this place," Ira Kaplan gushed at one point Saturday, acknowledging the tour-de-force conclusion to Yo La Tengo's three-night stint at the Fillmore. He'd barely spoken to the crowd all night, but it was plenty clear that Kaplan and his band mates were having a good time. Meandering through their deep catalog -- and trading instruments regularly -- Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley, and James McNew demonstrated Saturday why their quarter-century-old band holds the status of revered elders in the indie rock world. Last night's set list included soul and shoegaze. The forty-somethings flailed onstage with the electric carelessness of young punks. Yet their playing was flawless.
Well, almost flawless. A minute into "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House," Kaplan abruptly stopped playing keyboards. "I've destroyed that song so completely -- can we start it over?" he asked, turning around to apologize to his wife for blowing it. They nailed it the second time, then swayed right into "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven," the lush, nine-minute epic from 2009's Popular Songs. Few seemed to get twitchy during these delicate tunes, maybe because they sounded freaking gorgeous.
Then again, most everything sounded gorgeous: the subtle ballads, the droning feedback epics, the sweet, pillowy pop. Yo La Tengo knows a great many songs; they used Saturday's show as a chance to play obscure requests they'd been getting from fans, which both seemed to please Kaplan and make him nervous. He cutely kicked off several with self-effacing disclaimers, but full-throated applause and howling from the audience showed he didn't need to.
Kaplan was far from talkative, but Georgia and James' did nothing other than play -- and torture their instruments as a form of playing. During noise-and-feedback guitar solos, Kaplan doubled over and battered his guitar. He seemed to alternate between murdering someone with the axe, and murdering the instrument itself. James at one point moved as if trying to defend an attack by a swarm of bees, furiously waving his bass around his body to produce wild feedback.
Draped behind the Fillmore's giant stage was a huge image of multicolored buttons, every one different from the others. It was an easy visual metaphor for this notoriously eclectic band. By the end of their second encore, it seemed Yo La Tengo had exhibited every genre experiment they've tried in the last 25 years. Though that sounds ponderous -- especially for a band prone to 15-minute minimalist noise jams -- it wasn't. Their show dazzled both YLT newcomers and crowd members who crowed at the deepest cuts from their catalog. Only Yo La Tengo's giddy band members themselves might have had it better.
Critic's Notebook By The Way: Sic Alps were disappointing. Dwarfed onstage by the headliners' gear, the S.F. garage-rockers didn't seem to connect with the crowd, and their show lacked the energy it might have in a more intimate venue. There's a thrilling, reckless quality to the three-piece's recordings, but somehow that didn't come through Saturday.
Personal Bias: I went to the show with two certified Yo La Tengo devotees who also saw Friday night's show with Thee Oh Sees. They said Saturday's show had a far more expansive and exciting set list. Certainly the band played many old tunes along with a well-chosen assortment of new ones. (And some of the numbers from Popular Songs -- especially the cosmic incantation "Here to Fall" -- were highlights of the night.) But I'm curious for other takes -- and I'd love to hear what YLT played Friday. Tell us what you heard in the comments section.