Few bands can take the stage at The Atlantis and boast about playing the former nightclub to which the newly christened 450-person venue in DC’s U Street Corridor pays homage.
But Yo La Tengo has been making music for nearly 40 years, and way back in January of 1987, with only one album released up to that point and with a slightly different roster, the band made its first appearance at what was then known as Nightclub 9:30 and, prior to that, from 1977 to 1979, as The Atlantis.
That winter night’s headliner was DC’s own The Slickee Boys, and Yo La Tengo — then a rising outfit from Hoboken, New Jersey — was the opener.
“I can’t say I remember their performance that night, but I’ll go out on a limb and say it was amazing,” smiled Ira Kaplan, lead guitarist and one of the two founding members of the group.
He proudly shared that history with the sold-out crowd packed into the new version of The Atlantis on June 10 for two remarkable and riveting sets from this widely respected indie rock establishment.
As part of The Atlantis’ opening campaign — “44 Years 44 Artists $44 Each” — the concert sneakily preceded a show around the corner the following night at the current 9:30 Club, providing a rare opportunity to take in this incredibly talented and influential trio in a fresh and intimate setting.
Listen to Yo La Tengo’s 17th studio album, This Stupid World, via Spotify:
As he’s been since they formed YLT together, Kaplan was alongside Georgia Hubley, the band’s extraordinary drummer and his wife. The couple navigated the early success and adjustments to put the group on a track for a prosperous future and its long list of achievements. One of those was unquestionably the addition of multi-instrumentalist James McNew, the band’s fourteenth bass player but the only one since 1992.
Out on tour in support of its seventeenth studio album, This Stupid World, Yo La Tengo pulled extensively from the newest record to rock and mesmerize those lucky enough to be there Saturday night. The presentation began with the pensively distorted title track of the new album followed by “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” the album opener and a kaleidoscopic demonstration both in studio and on stage.
Here, Ira showed early in the set that he’s simply a one-of-a-kind master on the electric guitar, yanking uncommon sounds from the instrument and placing them so perfectly within the groove. Kaplan’s voice and those of his two accomplices register with delicacy, and in pieces like “Sinatra” the cojoined, slightly echoed intonation provided a marked contrast against a propulsive, rebounding jam.
YLT would dip into its vast catalogue with “Tiny Birds” from 2003’s Summer Sun and “The Cone of Silence,” the first tune on the 1986 debut Ride The Tiger.
“Cone” is the track Yo La Tengo opened with at its first Nightclub 9:30 gig, and Saturday night at The Atlantis, Ira offered it in tribute to 9:30 Club’s late, longtime sound engineer Shawn “Gus” Vitale, who passed away last month.
“Gonna send that song out to Gus,” Kaplan said to loud cheers. “We’re sorry he’s not with us tonight.”
Ira swapped between the Fender and his acoustic guitar throughout the set, and McNew provided crucial resonance by way of various keyboards and control decks forming an L shape on his half of the stage.
Georgia left the kit to play the keys in a splendid showcase of her own particularly beautiful voice during the “Aselestine,” a soothing piece from the new record.
The band would venture into three additional studio albums to complete a terrific first set. Upon returning, Yo La Tengo treated attendees to a mind-blowing cover of Neil Young’s “Time Fades Away,” giving Ira a chance to again wow in explosive fashion, curling over his Fender, flinging cords in any direction and using sustain to marvelous effect.
Four additional studio albums were featured across the second half of the night, mixed with more from This Stupid World, released in February on Matador Records.
Revisit Yo La Tengo’s first studio album, Ride The Tiger, via Spotify:
A two-story venue that lets patrons peer right over the band, The Atlantis seemed like the perfect venue to take in such a special performance. The festive second set culminated with Ira handing one his electrics to various members of the audience before letting it take a ride all the way to the back of the crowd and across the front row before he reeled it in thanks to the help of staff.
Returning to encore, Yo La Tengo lived out what Ira referred to as a bit of a fantasy, covering the song “Atlantis” in The Atlantis with some spoken-word assistance from tour manager Joe Puleo. And to close out the memorable evening, the crew delivered two more covers: “The Kid With the Replaceable Head” by Richard Hell & the Voidoids and The Only Ones’ “The Whole of the Law,” which was recorded on 1993’s Painful, the second YLT album to feature McNew.
The ideal band to help break in the second coming of The Atlantis — “the new old 9:30 Club,” as Dave Grohl called it — Yo La Tengo showed itself to be especially sharpened this past weekend and set the bar high with one of the establishment’s best early performances.
This Stupid World
Sinatra Drive Breakdown
The Cone of Silence
Deeper Into Movies
Our Way To Fail
Time Fades Away (Neil Young)
For You Too
Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop
The Story of Yo La Tengo
The Kid With the Replaceable Head (Richard Hell & the Voidoids)
The Whole of the Law (The Only Ones)
Here are images of Yo La Tengo performing at The Atlantis in DC the night of June 10, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.