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Yo La Tengo at Vicar Street on December 5th 2013

Yo La Tengo’s lead vocalist and chief guitar wrangler Ira Kaplan has apparently hit on the winning formula for shows – schedule one, cancel it, and then come back. The New Jersey band were due to play Vicar Street back in March after their latest album ‘Fade’ had just been released, but that date was cancelled due to bad weather conditions. “We think we barely made it today as well” he tells us, but as a stormy day in Dublin abates and the sky darkens, Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew finally make it to the capital for this bipartite show.

Three primary coloured cut-out trees act as the backdrop, pushing the band’s gear right to the front of the stage for the acoustic section of tonight’s performance. Everything is bundled in together, as keys, amps, percussion devices, more amps and more keys all seem to fuse into one singular unit as your gaze moves across the stage. Kaplan begins softly, all three harmonising on Ohm, the opening track from ‘Fade’. Hubley’s sympathetic vocal embellishments augment the sparse bass and guitar of Our Way To Fall, as they do Kaplan and McNew’s vocals when they step up in the rotation. McNew’s hypnotic bassline keeps Cornelia & Jane pulsing as Hubley sings, and it’s those moments when she leaves her seat at the rudimentary drumkit and faces Kaplan across the keys that this acoustic run-through becomes truly mesmerising. As they round off the first half with Big Day Coming Hubley is on guitar duties, and the rumbling whines and groans it emits seem almost intentionally prophetic of the set to come. Her colleagues hold a soft motif and the feedback gets louder, as this organic set prepares itself to become a different beast.

The trees move back to make room for the full band set-up, and McNew assumes drumstool duties – the squall is immediate, with that discordant guitar of Kaplan’s straight to the fore. The band forms a constantly rotating and coalescing organism as instruments are swapped and folk hop from one to the next. A double-hitter of Stockholm Syndrome and Autumn Sweater sees McNew don a guitar for the former and take a seat at the secondary drum set-up for the latter, bolstering both with that added layer of oomph. They fall into extended workouts, Hubley keeping the beat as the guitars manoeuvre in and through the spaces, eventually emerging from the distorted mire to crowd cheers.

Kaplan throws himself at a thrashy The Point Of It, whammy bar taking a punishing, before the night’s second outing of Ohm is marked by an underlying, undulating wave of strings – he turns his guitar inward, hammering on the back to elicit more noise; then its aloft, held by head and neck and pivoted around, finally laid flat on the ground with Kaplan on his knees scouring away. A fresh drone is laid on by McNew’s organ as Kaplan wrenches mangled chords from the guitar and Hubley punches out sporadic but perfectly timed fills on the kit. This extended pattern seems gloriously endless, then suddenly flourishes into a beautiful melody of Tortoise-like hue, erupting again as Kaplan tunes his strings up and down. The guitar – one of many – is thrown around, the sound textures more abrasive as McNew pogos to the conclusion.

It’s Yo La Tengo tradition to take requests from a chosen member of the audience, so tonight we get “Beatles guy request followed by vintage Yo La Tengo T-shirt request”. Today Is The Day kicks off, before the first of two final covers. “We don’t usually take requests for songs that aren’t ours but we might have to make an exception for that one” says Kaplan, and The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner gets a much-welcome and largely faithful outing. It’s a more tender sign-off though, to this most wonderful of gigs. Hubley comes out stage front to take lead vocal, flanked on either side by her two bandmates, for a folky rendering of Brian Wilson’s Farmer’s Daughter. It’s a warm end to what is – whether in acoustic or electric mode – an intimately laid-out show. The band are a tight-knit unit, each one’s input a carefully knitted weave that appears both loose and improvisational yet wound up tight as a knot. “We’re gonna come back for about eight months or so then finish up” Kaplan tells us after the show’s first half. We couldn’t hold them to that despite the wait since Spring, but this show is one to be savoured…by their own admission, we may not be seeing them back here for a while.

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Photos: Colm Kelly