Yo La Tengo, Barbican, London

  • @SimonOHagan

Life may not be a bed of roses, but a Yo La Tengo gig certainly is.

Separating the band from the audience at the Barbican on Wednesday night was an arrangement of blooms that extended across the front of the stage like an enclosure at the Chelsea Flower Show. A row of three trees positioned behind the musicians maintained the Nature theme. Not actual trees, but depictions in the style of cartoon cut-outs.

The set décor hinted at the playful, dreamlike aspects of YLT’s music, which has been keeping fans in its thrall for some 30 years now. And it did so again here – a laid-back melange of shuffling beats, guitar fuzz and vocal purity that featured many of the delights on YLT’s most recent album (their twelfth), 2013’s Fade.

The three-piece outfit from New Jersey – husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, with James McNew playing gooseberry – exuded the assurance of those who have been together a long time and know each other so well that live performance appears almost effortless. Theirs was a well-honed vision, and while the music was loose it was also precise.

YLT’s generosity of spirit was never compromised by their bursts of Zappa-like experimentalism, the band’s genius residing in the creation of a big sound that was also intimate and emotionally engaging. Kaplan was the droll, blasé frontman on guitar,  Hubley a retiring figure on drums whose sublime voice it would have been nice to hear more of.

McNew stood out for a different reason. He remained virtually static the entire evening until Kaplan and Hubley doubled up on drums and their bass player stepped forward to apply a certain menace to the heavily rhythmic “Our Way To Fall” from the album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out.

YLT divided the evening into two halves – a “quiet” half and a “loud” half, but the difference in character between the two was not so great. Indeed, the lovely “Ohm” appeared in both sets. Stand-out moments included the wistful “I’ll Be Around”, with a Kaplan vocal that recalled Leonard Cohen; the tantrically uplifting “Before We Run”; the dense, reverb-drenched “Paddle Forward”; and a crisp version of Adam Ant’s “Ant Music”, which was YLT’s improbable tribute to London. I’d have thrown flowers on to the stage if I’d had any. Not that they would have been needed.