Photos by Ebet Roberts
Yo La Tengo spun one day of rehearsal with a bunch of relative strangers into spaced-out, sonic gold at And Then Yo La Tengo Turned Itself Inside Out, a one-night-only show at Manhattan’s historic Town Hall.
The evening was the third installment of the Town Hall’s “Improvisations” series, kicked off in February by Laurie Anderson and Christian McBride, and promising performances by “improv masters and adventurous performers from multiple disciplines.”
Yo La Tengo, who has held their current lineup of husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew since 1992, certainly fits that bill—over their 30-plus years making records, they’ve consistently been known as critical darlings, in part thanks to their tendency toward improvisation and a consistent effort to experiment with their sound.
They proved that they’re adventurous performers too, tackling a two-hour trip through their recording history with eight musicians, most of whom they met for the first time the day before the show, during the impromptu supergroup’s first and only rehearsal.
Drummers Amy Garapic and Chad Taylor, harp player Zeena Parkins, guitarist Mary Halvorson and a formidable horn section (featuring Roswell Rudd on trombone, Vincent Chancey on french horn, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Daniel Carter on saxophone) joined Hubley, Kaplan and McNew for an electrifying set that found a constant, stunning tension between order and chaos. This was established from the offset, as, out of the discord of tuning, “Let’s Be Still,” from 2003’s Summer Sun slowly emerged as the opening number.
Something was written down—papers shuffled on music stands—but it was never clear how much, as expressive horn solos, drum flourishes and the scratch of guitar fuzz cried out unexpectedly from an even dozen songs ranging from Electr-o-pura‘s “Tom Courtenay” to more recent pieces, such as “Ohm,” from 2013’s Fade.
Hubley, McNew and Kaplan swapped lead and backing vocals throughout the night, and thankfully set a good balance of brass. Rudd, Chancey, Bynum and Carter added an easygoing exuberance—and serious pedigree—to the proceedings, but at times threatened to drown out the band’s already muffled vocals.
Despite an intermission, which cut into the proceedings all too soon after barely an hour, the music never fully stopped, but rose and fell like waves, supporting musicians leaving and rejoining the action. The songs themselves were hardly wild, unrecognizable iterations, though. The group is known for lengthy jams, and, especially in more recent years, has experimented with instrumentation—including horns. But somehow, the energy was palpable, perhaps asserting the power of context, as the august setting elevated the proceedings beyond indie-rock and into loftier, avant strata.
A few times throughout the night I was struck by the relatively staid nature of the audience, but besides the fact that the venue’s tight, orderly rows of chairs effectively restrict movement, it felt like a fine format to sit, bathed in darkness, as the music swirled. Sounds echoed off the walls in ways you couldn’t pinpoint—was that a french horn blast? Crash of a symbol? Georgia’s guttural tone?—lending an almost supernatural resonance to the swell of songs that stretched into double digits, like “Our Way To Fall” from 2000’s album to which the night seemed to pay slight homage, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
For an encore, James McNew took the lead on Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” a song they first covered in 2002 (when they released three versions on an EP of the same name). Though inescapably political, it was a jazzy choice that showed the lighter side of the evening and the performers themselves, with its expletive-filled call and response.
Walking in, I would have met the casual suggestion of 15-minute long, mostly instrumental songs with a groan. By the time the encore ended, and the audience rose once more for a standing ovation, I wouldn’t have minded a few more.