There are two distinct sides to Yo La Tengo. They're so distinct that one side served as an opening act for the other at the Barrymore last night. The band's first set was languid, peaceful collection of their quieter material. One standout was a hybrid version of "Return To Hot Chicken" from 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and "Decora" from 1995's Electr-O-Pura. Mark Penner, a Yo La Tengo fan who's also the bassist for local band the Apologists, compared this performance to "4 a.m. on a cold winter morning."
The second set was a thorough exploration of the band's loud, guitar-frying side. Guitarist Ira Kaplan's Fender amps may have been tortured a bit, but the loveliness of the band's music shone through walls of shrieking feedback and distortion. The band's singers, Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, rarely raise their voices beyond murmur. This understated vocal style made even the most sonically aggressive songs seem to possess an inner calm. The band's pairing of noise and subdued beauty only added to the lyricism.
Throughout the set, Kaplan's guitar playing was astounding. During "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)," his thrilling, almost atonal shredding sounded like an update on the kinds of throttling, ear-splitting solos Lou Reed used to play live with the Velvet Underground in 1968. A concise and incendiary version of "Sugarcube" showed how easily the balance between blazing guitar tone and pop melody can be struck. Kaplan also demonstrated an overwhelming fondness for feedback-drenched guitar noise, swinging his guitar around his head like a tamer version of Pete Townshend to wring out the proper frequencies during a distinctive version of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda."
New songs from the band's latest album, Fade, fit right in as well. Some were definite high points of the show. During Fade's opener, "Ohm," bassist James McNew switched to an electric 12-string guitar, and Kaplan and Hubley harmonized. But this song's most notable feature was the juxtaposition of the beautiful, trancelike tune and the huge explosions of feedback that Kaplan tore out of his guitar. The doubt-ridden lyrics of "Is That Enough" were offset by a crunchy, distorted but poppy riff, and the sprightly, organ-driven "Well You Better" sounded genuinely cute, not cutesy.
The band seemed cheerful and entertained requests from the crowd during the encore. After an audience member shouted for I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One's "Moby Octopad," Kaplan said to the rest of the band, "Yeah, let's play it again, why not?" The band had apparently played the song in Chicago a few nights before, but this didn't stop them from turning in an almost note-perfect version, complete with murmuring vocals, gloriously bent keyboard work from Kaplan and McNew's metronomic variation on the bass line from the Velvet Underground's "European Son."
After that, the band dipped into their catalog of covers and pulled out three in a row for the crowd. McNew sang lead on an amusing, faithful version of the Velvet Underground's bubblegum anthem "Who Loves The Sun," and Kaplan sang a soft, but deeply felt take on Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away." Then, for the second encore, Hubley sang a very funny and adorable version of the Cat Stevens song "Here Comes My Baby," complete with jaunty whistling from a guest only referred to as Mark. When the band finally waved goodbye to the crowd, the smiles on their faces were undoubtedly genuine.