Yo La Tengo performs two breathtaking sets at Union Transfer on St. Patrick's Day - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Longtime indie rock favorites Yo La Tengo stretched out for a full night at Philly’s Union Transfer last Friday, delivering two sets on the St. Patrick’s Day holiday. Leaving no room for an opener, the three piece started off their first set with two songs from 2023’s This Stupid World, a shaking and powerful record buzzing from recent positive critical review.

The sold-out venue stood quiet and still as Ira Kaplan (guitar/vocal), Georgia Hubley (drums, piano, vocals), and James McNew (bass, vocals), offered a transcendent, almost holy experience. With only three players, Yo La Tengo produced a wall of sound delicately balanced by droning bass lines, subtle vocal performances, steady but thrashing drums, and live manipulated guitar feedback. Now in its third decade with this lineup, these three multi-talented musicians have created a sound important to different generations of fans, reflected in the audience. Their concert felt like the place artists of all sorts, belonging to a range of age groups, came to be inspired. Their first set left us breathless, hanging onto precious melodies over a building roar of freakout jam, and then returning to silence. Yo La Tengo knows how to play with tension and release, as exemplified in the setlist, a mix of softly sweet songs like 1992’s “Satellite” next to a spiking live arrangement of the resolving “Apology Letter.”

Yo La Tengo | photo by Paige Walter for WXPN

Yo La Tengo’s second set started after a brief intermission, and came out swinging with the humming titular track “This Stupid World.” Someone I recently met who attended the show but had never heard the band before made the mistake of thinking there had been an opening act, and this was Yo La Tengo coming out for their first song of the evening. If you couldn’t see the same musicians return to the stage, you could almost be forgiven for making that mistake, as this second set covered different ground completely. While the first set had been meditative and tear-jerking at times, the second half of the show was its rough and rowdy counterpart.

“Fallout” from This Stupid World was a highlight, as well as two from their revered 1997 record I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One: “We’re An American Band” and “Return to Hot Chicken.” During this time, the band pulled out all their tricks, with Hubley’s drums thumping so measurably and fast that her sticks disappeared, and Kaplan making a show out of the amplifier feedback he was composing, by scratching his back with his guitar or holding the instrument’s body at a distance then rhythmically shaking it back and forth. McNew and Hubley’s changing positions throughout the night added intrigue to the show as well; at times, she’d be behind the kit, or up at the keyboard, or in front of the mic, and he’d follow to replace the position she’d left.

The satisfying show ended with a cover of “Teenage Kicks” by the Irish band The Undertones, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, of course. Then another cover, Sun Ra Arkestra’s “Rocket Number Nine,” then another, Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle.” In an impressive showing, Yo La Tengo at Union Transfer exhibited their timelessness and versatility all while sounding distinctly like themselves. In their plain clothes without fancy stage lighting, there’s nothing about the appearance of this band that screams “rockstar,” but you can hear it nonetheless.

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