Concert review and set lists: Yo La Tengo and Calexico contrast sounds and styles at the Pageant, Thursday, January 31
I arrived at a sedate Pageant night club at around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday and comfortably found a spot on the floor in the front row right up against the railing. With 20 minutes to go before Calexico took the stage, I passed the time by counting instruments.
There were six guitars (seven if you count the pedal steel), 10 microphones, two trumpets, a standing bass, a xylophone, a few pairs of maracas, a few keyboards, an accordion and a drum set. When my game of musical I Spy ended, I turned around to realize that the venue was now almost full. The area in the back of the Pageant by the bar was almost as crowded as the stage.
For the next hour, Calexico somehow managed to use every single instrument they brought with them, playing a game of musical chairs by running around to different spots when the music started and stopped. I think the only members who stayed with the same instrument the whole night were drummer John Convertino (though he did take up tambourine and maracas) and vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns, and even he switched between three different guitars. The set’s opener, “Epic,” was truly that, building to the point where it had so many layers that I really didn’t know who I should be watching play. The Spanish lyrics of songs like “Roka” and “Inspiración” added to the music that’s rightly described as “indie mariachi.”
My favorite song of Calexico’s set was “Fortune Teller,” a fairly new composition with smooth vocals, a tango vibe and ghostly “oohs” throughout that almost echoed the Shins’ “New Slang.” Calexico played an impressive set on all scales, and it was just the perfect length.
As for Yo La Tengo, I think I need to approach the set from two different perspectives. First, I’ll address the show I saw; then I’ll explain what I wish it could have been.
The songs Yo La Tengo chose to play sounded spectacular. At times, Kaplan let loose on his beaten-up guitar and exploded into screeching dissonance; that was simply a joy to watch. I loved that the band decided to invite members of Calexico on stage for a good number of songs, adding trumpets and keyboards to songs that are usually just guitar, bass and drums.
Another one of my favorite moments was Kaplan’s quirky dialogue — including the “parental” advice to not be like Ellie Goulding’s fans and instead to bundle up against the cold — as he introduced the band. “Obviously, we’re old,” he said. “Our bands almost 30 years old. Of course we’re old.” I didn’t realize it when I first got to the Pageant, but Yo La Tengo has been a band a decade longer than I’ve been alive. Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are old enough to be my parents.
So, I don’t want to say I left Yo La Tengo’s set feeling disappointed, but I did feel like it was missing something. I had done some research by reading old show reviews, and each one talked about the unexpectedness and creativity of a Yo La Tengo show. For a few shows last year, they brought a game show-styled wheel on stage and used that to pick what songs they played. I didn’t need that wheel, but I still hoped for a greater sense of spontaneity.
One of two covers played, a rendition of the Nightcrawlers’ “Little Black Egg,” came in the encore and actually turned out to be one of my favorite songs of the night. Another moment of unexpectedness came when I looked over at the merch booth during Calexico’s set only to find Kaplan himself manning the table. As a whole though, instead of the chaotic show I thought I’d get, the set came off as pretty controlled.
The first half featured mostly mellow tracks, “quiet numbers,” as Kaplan called them, and the second half (not counting the encore) included louder, harder songs. There were a few exceptions, like the scrappy “We’re An American Band” that came early on and ended with Kaplan so involved in his guitar solo that I seriously thought he might smash the instrument to pieces at the end.
Just to be clear though, the set was good, and I enjoyed what I saw and heard. I just wish maybe they’d hit “shuffle” before taking the stage.
In a way, what Yo La Tengo lacked, Calexico had, and maybe that’s why they tour together and why Yo La Tengo approached the show the way they did. Calexico’s set was full of different sounds, instruments and even different languages, and Yo La Tengo’s was more relaxed and focused. I guess there is importance in balance, and if Yo La Tengo had played the frenetic show I was hoping for, it may have been too much to handle.
Sometimes you can’t have everything you want, and leaving satisfied is all you should really hope for. Maybe it will all make more sense when I’m a little older.
Calexico set list:
Across the Wire
Minas de Cobre
Maybe on Monday
Alone Again Or (Love cover)
Yo La Tengo set list:
I’ll Be Around
We’re an American Band
Avalon or Someone Similar
Tears Are in Your Eyes
The Point of It
Cornelia & Jane
Before We Run
From a Motel 6
Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
Little Black Egg (Nightcrawlers cover)
The Farmer’s Daughter (Beach Boys cover)