Show Review & Photos: YO LA TENGO in Atlanta, GA (01/28/11)

Most bands only tour when they have a new album or project to promote, but Yo La Tengo‘s current “Spin the Wheel” tour is simply about having fun making music. In Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse last Friday, the trio let the crowd know that right off the bat.

The show opened with canned game show tunes played over the speakers as they rolled a giant Wheel of Fortune style spinner onto the stage. A lucky audience member was chosen to spin the wheel and determine what the first half of the evening’s set list is going to look like. Set list possibilities included songs starting with S, sections of their The Sounds of Sounds of Science soundtrack, a Q&A session, covers of obscure garage rock from the 60s & 70s, and more.

When the young lady picked from the mob spun the wheel, I was amazed at how anxious I was. I was dying to hear The Sounds of Science live and dreading the possibility of hearing 45 minutes of old garage rock covers. It landed on “Spin Again,” the audience went nuts, and I was a nervous wreck. The second spin slowed to a stop on “Spinner’s Choice” and immediately everyone began shouting their choices; myself included. Our fate was in her hands and her decision couldn’t have made me happier: The Sounds of Science, Pt. 2.

Written in 2002, The Sounds of Science is a score for a collection of nature films about sea life from the 1930s-70s by famed French filmmaker Jean Painlevé. While the live experience would have been perfect if the films had been projected along with the music, I was content to close my eyes and conjure up my own images of sea urchins twitching as the waves of sound washed over me. I’d look up to the stage occasionally and see Ira twiddling with electronic knobs, James methodically plucking his bass guitar, and Georgia softly tapping away at every part and piece of her drum kit. It was pure bliss.

After the first set, they took a break and returned to play another 45 minute set that presented a nice summary of the Yo La Tengo discography (one that dates back to 1986 and includes 14 full-length albums and twice as many EPs and film scores). They started with their wonderful classic from 1997 “Autumn Sweater” and gently moved into the hushed “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.” It wasn’t long before Ira’s electric guitar stole the show at the end of “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1).” That man loves to make his instrument create incredible sounds – whether it be feedback from swinging his Fender wildly in circles over his head or pounding on its strings with mallets on the ground.

Ira’s mad love for the chaos he can create with his guitar is my one complaint about Yo La Tengo’s live act. While he certainly is having fun on stage, the continuous assault of noise is exhausting for the spectator. This reached a pinnacle when they played a 15 minute long version of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” from their cleverly-titled 2006 album I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. I did feel like I was being beaten to death – not just by continuous barrage of sound from his guitar but by the never-ending bass line as well. It was on that note that they ended the second set. Thank God for encores.

For the final set they asked for audience requests (again, a ballsy move when you have a music library as epic as theirs) and decided on “We’re an American Band.” They played both their song of that title and followed it with a cover of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1973 hit song of the same name. The show couldn’t have ended any better when the mood changed once again with Georgia almost whispering the lines to “Big Day Coming” with Ira and James softly accompanying her on guitar and keyboard.

For those unfamiliar with Yo La Tengo, this tour is the perfect chance to get acquainted with the group (don’t worry 25 years into their career still isn’t too late to jump on board). They spanned their discography with songs from their 2009 album Popular Songs and all the way back to 1993’s Painful. The crowd was rendered silent with hushed love songs and deafened with screaming feedback on out-of-control 10-minute guitar solos. I took part in something as goofy as spinning a wheel of chance and then experienced high art in the score to vintage nature documentary films.

The Spanish phrase “Yo La Tengo” translates to “I have it” and for this band “it” is most definitely a love for making music and having fun all the while.


Set List (Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA – 01/28/11)

Spin the Wheel: The Sounds of Science, Pt. 2

  • The Sea Horse
  • The Love Life of the Octopus
  • Shrimp Stories
  • Acera or the Witches’ Dance

Set 2

  • Autumn Sweater
  • Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
  • Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)
  • How to Make a Baby Elephant Float
  • False Alarm
  • I’m On My Way
  • Nothing to Hide
  • Today is the Day
  • Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind


  • We’re An American Band
  • We’re An American Band (Grand Funk Railroad cover)
  • Big Day Coming