I wanted to do Yo La Tengo a favor. I had to talk to the group before its upcoming Sayers Club show—billed as an “acoustic evening” performance in support of their new album Stuff Like That There—and help them to prepare for a midweek Las Vegas show.
I felt that this band, whose music has been tightly woven around the soundtrack of my life, needed to know that if the crowd at their show is thin, boorish or simply unappreciative, we Las Vegans are so, so sorry. If any of this should come to pass, I would say this to Yo La Tengo: It’s not our fault. The people who live here are fine. But we get these out-of-town visitors all the time … and most of them are really great people, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes, a few of them don’t know how to behave themselves.
When I caught up with Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew by phone, the group was about to take the stage for a show in the U.K., where they’ve spent much of October. As I explain my concerns to McNew, he seems nonplussed. “I’m excited about the show,” he says. Well, I am, too, I want to say, but let’s not set the bar too high.
As it turns out, my fears might have been misdirected. Yo La Tengo previously survived playing a Matador Records spotlight event in Las Vegas five years ago. And for McNew, the return marks an offbeat homecoming: He actually lived in Las Vegas for a brief period in 1989, while playing for the band Christmas. His Vegas residency didn’t last long—in short order McNew returned back east and joined Yo La Tengo—but he remembers the town fondly. That’s a relief.
Regardless, I still believe my concerns about YLT playing to a small, ungrateful Vegas audience are entirely justified. Even though Yo La Tengo is not a delicate band, they can still sound delicate, as they do on much of Stuff Like That There. Then I got wind of the Stuff shows themselves: acoustic performances with McNew playing upright bass and early YLT guitarist David Schramm, who recorded with the group on 1990’s album Fakebook, joining the band onstage.
Fakebook followed on the heels of the band’s Ride the Tiger and New Wave Hot Dogs—both noisy, competent, post-punk rock albums—but it proved to be a turning point. It was the group’s first true musical departure, split between esoteric cover songs from artists such as the Flamin’ Groovies and Daniel Johnston, and original tunes such as “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and “Did I Tell You.”
After Fakebook’s release, Schramm left the group a second time, opening the door for McNew, who joined founders Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley in a lineup that’s remained unchanged for nearly 25 years. But in the times that followed, Yo La Tengo frequently leaned on Kaplan’s guitar as a staple of their live shows—deafening, throbbing walls of sound that threatened to eat you whole. Sure, there were introspective moments, but they were the exception.
Stuff, then, is part homage to Fakebook, part celebration of McNew’s tenure, and part yardstick by which Yo La Tengo measures how much further they can hit the ball. There are immediately recognizable cover songs, such as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” as well as songs by less-recognizable artists. The group also delves into its back catalog, reworking several tunes, including “Deeper Into Movies” from 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and posting a couple new songs too—much like Fakebook did.
And none of this is happening by accident.
“[The 25th anniversary] seemed too weird to not take advantage of,” McNew says. Stuff was the first album in a long time, he adds, where all the songs sounded like they belonged on the same disc. It’s a far cry from the traditional Yo La Tengo recording process that typically begins without too much pre-planning. “Usually we just have a bunch of songs that are partially finished … or not even close to being finished,” McNew says. But this time the band knew exactly what they wanted to do.
All of which has been a little disarming for some of the audiences for which YLT has played Stuff Like That There, though McNew says the responses have been positive. But when he joined Yo La Tengo following the release of Fakebook, fans of the group loved its quieter, experimental sound, and were sometimes befuddled as the band played louder live.
The irony of that full-circle journey, now that Yo La Tengo is toning it down for the Stuff shows, is not lost on McNew. “It makes me laugh when people are kind of confused,” he says. “They wanted the quiet show [after Fakebook], and now they’ve got it.”
Yo La Tengo
9 p.m. Nov. 11, Sayers Club at SLS, $20, 702-761-7618; TheSayersClubLV.com.