When you walk into a show that is advertised as “An Evening with” you ought to expect something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what veteran indie-rock band Yo La Tengo delivered at the Boulder Theater Tuesday night.
With around 30 years experience and 13 albums to its name, Yo Le Tango has continually been a favorite of critics and fans with a sprawling, eclectic brand of music. However, even for a band known for unpredictability and range of sound, they stepped onto the stage at the Boulder Theater in a unexpectedly quiet manner, with just two acoustic guitars and a snare brush.
This would be the start of a two set show — consisting of a quiet and a loud set — spanning almost three hours. The quiet set, which was mostly acoustic and primarily material off the newest album “Fade,” managed to be simultaneously intriguing and dull. While the stripped down versions of their songs with beautiful vocals and musicianship was something to be admired, after three or four of the same finger-picking and slow-tempoed tracks, trying to focus became exhausting. An attempt at intimacy and subtly became almost monotonous.
The audience seemed to be split on how to react to Yo La Tengo’s set — half seemed memorized by the light, flowing melodies while the other half seemed unimpressed — expecting or wanting something more. The latter half won out as chatter between audience members became louder than any clapping or praise by the end.
After a long intermission, loud reverb and cheers greeted the band as Yo La Tengo attempted to revive energy lost in the first set. While the acoustic set was impressive in its own right, it felt orchestrated and put-on, while the loud set felt organic, raw and oddly more intimate than the first. It was in this second set that Yo La Tengo shined, displaying how comfortable they were on stage and with their ever-switching instruments. In just one track the band seemed to age decades musically, moving from a ’60s psychedelic sound to a punk-influenced guitar solo. At one point industrial and experimental, at another playing straight indie-pop. This show was clearly about pushing boundaries, and oddly enough it was the straight-forward “Is That Enough,” that got the most reaction out of the enduring crowd.
“Ohm,” which appeared early on in the quiet set was brought back for a beat-heavy rendition in the second. Where the acoustic version was mystical and majestic, the electric-guitar infused one had much more life. Yo La Tengo seemed to challenge the audience to determine which was better, and while that’s a hard call to make, it can be said, as Ira Kaplan repeated “is this where you die” while swinging his guitar around like a baseball bat, the loud version was more entertaining.
Yo La Tengo deserves praise for an attempt at providing a unique experience, but unique doesn’t always mean better. The band was more focused on trying to create some new experience rather than entertain fans. As Kaplan spent more than 10 minutes playing the same guitar melody every way possible accompanied by trance-inducing drums and a pulsing, blinding strobe light, one couldn’t help but question what their intentions were for this endeavor, and for whom they were intended.
Isa Jones is a Boulder-based writer and a new contributor to Reverb.