"We've been together so long, it seems like we've always been here," Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan said Saturday night to the Trocadero audience. As the Hoboken, N.J., trio wound up a brief four-date tour celebrating their 30 years as a band, it was hard to disagree with him.
Although 1993's Painful, the first album with James McNew, the last of the band's 17 bass players, as a permanent member, overlapped with the alternative-rock boom that pushed contemporaries like Sonic Youth to the edge of the mainstream, Yo La Tengo's artistic and commercial path has been one of steady progress rather than dramatic leaps and sudden shortfalls.
The band's disdain for "new-direction" posturing can make its tremendous growth easy to overlook, but over the course of a two-plus hour set that drew on 10 of the musicians' 13 albums, it was clear there was little they couldn't do.
Good as their albums have been, they've always been best on stage, with a fluidity and versatility that has made every show a unique event. (Total overlap between the Troc show and Thursday night's show at New York's Town Hall: three songs.)
From hushed acoustic-guitar lullabies ("The Summer") to hails of distorted noise ("Big Day Coming"), philosophical drones ("Ohm") to fuzz-coated pop ("Sugarcube"), they reached out in all directions like a six-armed octopus while never sounding like anything other than themselves.
Kaplan, McNew, and drummer Georgia Hubley tend to cut their sentiment with irony or obscurity: "The Story of Yo La Tango" paired quasi-autobiographical lyrics with a frequent misspelling of the band's name, while the haunting "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" was a dark comic parable inspired by an offhand Simpsons reference.
But sharing the stage with fellow trio Antietam, as they did Dec. 2, 1984, at Maxwell's in Hoboken obviated the need for overt nostalgia. Kaplan uttered a few words over the final song, a lilting cover of NRBQ's "What Can I Say," but it was Hubley's dinky keyboard solos - three in all - that spoke most poignantly, expressing a reluctance to leave the stage mixed with a fundamental humility about holding it.