Yo La Tengo – review

Barbican, London

Yo La Tengo shows, as those who have seen them frequently can attest, can be thrilling or they can be interminably dull. That's what happens when you've got a band equally keen to play somnabulant pop, three-minute spurts of garage rock and extended wig-outs – get the balance wrong and you bore the crowd. Tonight, they're trying to make things easy, playing two sets – the quiet stuff first, the noisy stuff afterwards – but the rigid format means there's little room for the playfulness that's one of their most attractive qualities: only a ramshackle cover of Antmusic in the encore, sung by bassist James McNew, feels like the band are actually having fun, as opposed to curating an exhibition, perhaps entitled "Yo La Tengo and the American guitar underground: 1986-2013".

That's not to say there's not plenty to treasure. Ohm, which opens the quiet set and pops up again in the noisy one, works perfectly as an acoustic number, its droning insistence given extra focus by the absence of noise. Tom Courtenay, another rocker recast acoustically, is sung by drummer Georgia Hubley instead of guitarist Ira Kaplan, and manages to sound even better than in its original incarnation. But throughout the first half, Yo La Tengo resemble nothing so much as Ikea furniture: tasteful, comfortable, but just a little "so what?".

Some of the problems lie with the seated venue, gripes that become more apparent in the second set. Kaplan crouches and shakes, wrestling feedback from his guitar, a man consumed by wild passions – and 2,000 people sit still and applaud politely. It makes one long to see him doing the same in front of a sweaty, drunk, club crowd, who might be able to respond in kind. But even the reverent atmosphere can't quell the thrill of the closing Blue Line Swinger, Hubley pushing the pace harder and harder, Kaplan responding with swathes of noise.

At the end, the crowd rise to their feet. It would have been better if they could have been in that position all along.

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Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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