It’s hard to imagine fans warming up to Lou Reed or Brian Eno, to name two of Yo La Tengo’s more obvious influences. But the New Jersey-based trio avoids the emotional distance that afflicts most art rock, trading its lizardy sang-froid for warmth, humor and generosity, qualities that were much in evidence at the band’s appearance at a sold-out El Rey.
Led by former rock critic Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo are the mensches of post-punk. Taking the anyone-can-be-in-a-band democracy that fueled punk, Kaplan, his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew (augmented by Superchunk’s Mac MacCaughan and David Kilgour of the Clean) retain a fan’s joy in making music that’s infectious. It’s hard to imagine any other band bringing their merchandise salesman onstage to wish him a happy birthday, or turning their encore over to Kilgour for a mini-set of Clean songs.
Billed as an “unusually quiet evening” with the band, about half their nearly two-hour performance was drawn from their impressive new album, “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out” (Matador) — quiescent, attenuated, whispered ballads that explore marriage and relationships. Songs such as the 15-minute “Night Falls on Hoboken” and “Last Days of Disco,” with their quiet drones (punctuated by Kaplan’s squawking-feedback guitar solos), Eastern rhythms and extended codas, sound like an adult version of psychedelia.
The rest of the evening included older (and louder) material as well as diverse covers, including a gleefully sloppy Ramones “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and a rambling lope through the bubble-gum soul of George McRae’s “You Can Have It All.” The latter included Kaplan and McNew (as well as members of openers Lambchop, whose gentle folk-soul orchestrations perfectly completed the headliners) engaging in a goofy dance routine that Kaplan performed with a broad smile.
“If it doesn’t come from your heart, why bother,” Kaplan told the crowd.
He followed his own dictate throughout the concert, leading his band in a heartfelt, musically satisfying evening.