Yo La Tengo – review

Royal Festival Hall, London

An indie institution 27 years in the making, Yo La Tengo are gloriously unpredictable. It's often said that no two shows by the New Jersey trio are alike. This is nowhere more apparent than at Sunday's Meltdown show, titled Reinventing the Wheel.

"We have no idea what the next songs will be – or even if there'll be songs," says guitarist Ira Kaplan. "We like to open it up to chance." In this case, the band invite an audience member onstage to spin a wheel of fortune that will determine the first half of the concert. Possibilities include an appearance as their garage-rock alter egos the Condo Fucks, a set of songs that begin with S, a Q&A session, their soundtrack to a film about fish (sadly without footage), and "sitcom theatre" in which they re-enact a Seinfeld episode. Tonight, however, Yo La Tengo will perform as the Condo Fucks, an outcome greeted with cries of approval – and sighs of relief.

An uncompromising covers band, they create a fast, loud and dumb racket where rock'n'roll favourites are run through the shredder in the spirit of their "dreadful" live album, Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics. The Small Faces' What'cha Gonna Do About It sounds like a Stooges outtake, the Troggs' With a Girl Like You gets a grunge makeover, while Electric Eels' Accident sees Kaplan's guitar scuffed and scratched to unleash lacerating shards of dissonance. Others are perhaps less recognisable, whizzing past in a flurry of feedback and frenetic soloing, bringing CBGBs to the Southbank Centre.

The second half of the evening finds the band in experimental mood. Returning to play a "regular" set, they open with Night Falls on Hoboken, a lo-fi lullaby extrapolated into 17-minute drone. The next hour sees them jump through genres like an iPod Shuffle: Season of the Shark finds Kaplan crooning over mellow organ and gently brushed drums; Tom Courtenay, a perfect paring of dream pop and noise rock, finds him on a mission to out-scuzz Sonic Youth; while Cherry Chapstick showcases the kind of fretboard pyrotechnics that once led a friend to label him "the Jewish Jimi Hendrix".

Encore performances including My Little Corner of the World reveal the band's softer side, Georgia Hubley's hushed vocals suggesting a Mo Tucker it's still OK to like. Plus, there's a nod to Meltdown curator Ray Davies in a cover of the Kinks' God's Children.

One of the most inventive and charismatic bands in indie rock, it's not hard to see why Yo La Tengo are so treasured. At this rate, they may prove as enduring as Davies himself.

• The Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in London continues until 19 June. The Observer is its media partner.


Dafydd Goff

The GuardianTramp

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