The three members that make up Yo La Tengo are of an age where they shouldn’t really have to answer to anyone. Over the course of 11 albums and numerous EPs, the Hoboken-based band has paid its dues. But now, after 23 years, they’ve decided to give back to the fans who have followed them down several stylistic alleys, parlaying their wisdom, wit, and wide-ranging back catalogue into a short, interactive acoustic tour. Billed as the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo, they are here to treat the majestic confines of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church as their own private confessional booth.
Fielding queries from fans packed into tiny pews as part of an ongoing question-and-answer session, the band expounds on their worst tour experience, choice of mixed drink, even their favorite Grateful Dead song. Requests are made. Some are answered, others brushed off. “Freebird,” shouts one fan; “the Beatles,” bellows another. “Play a Yo La Tengo song,” offers someone sitting stage right, and they do. Twelve of tonight’s 18 songs are, in fact, originals. Part fan-boy wet dream, part variety-show special, the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo is a lot like the normal Yo La Tengo: gentle ballads, check; garrulous guitar solos, check; self-deprecating humor, check. Still, fans who turned up expecting a sedate set of acoustic odes—as I did—are soon surprised by the ragged nature of several songs.
A wild run through the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name”, prompted by a fan’s question about continuous comparisons with the seminal ’60s band, is as raucous and ramshackle as it gets. Another fan sarcastically requests “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, the roaring, 10-minute jam that opens their latest long player, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. “It’ll be funny,” he insists. It’s not. They play it straight, and it’s harder than the wooden pews we sit upon.
As advertised, though, the instrumentation is largely acoustic. Ira Kaplan hugs a hollow-bodied guitar while Georgia Hubley, his wife, sits behind an abbreviated drum kit, brushes in hand. Only James McNew’s bass is evidently electric, and it’s still not overly amplified. Two songs in, however, during “Barnaby, Hardly Working” (a track taken from largely acoustic album Facebook), the delicate cadence is interrupted by a stentorian strum. It erupts from the placid song like an amplifier dropped in a bathtub, the ripples of guitar echoing out in a frenzied fashion, a fashion not found on the song’s recorded version. The sudden burst of sound belies the acoustic guitar sitting in Kaplan’s lap, its neck being wrung like a Thanksgiving turkey.
It’s a stirring moment, one of several that epitomize the fact that, whatever you think Yo La Tengo to be, they are often something else entirely. The band has covered all points of the musical compass during their long and storied career, and tonight is no different. Jazz, bossa nova, and psychedelic rock are just a few of the genres they flirt with over the course of the evening, making each of them their own through unflappable execution.
While it’s hard to argue against the fact that Kaplan is the band’s de facto figurehead—he does, after all, answer most of the fan questions—it’s Hubley who steals the show with sublime songs like the delicate “Nowhere Near” from 1993’s Painful. Both structurally and lyrically simple, it’s achingly effective, and even Kaplan’s discordant guitar disruptions don’t defeat the overriding melancholic feel.
It’s a feeling they carry into the next song, a heartbreaking version of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”. The cover comes about somewhat surreptitiously; a fan, asking about the band’s worst tour experience, is told of their time supporting the Man in Black in suburban arenas and the subdued reaction they received from his loyal supporters. “While we’re playing this sweet song,” explains Kaplan prior to the cover, “we’ll try and think of some more bad experiences.” And therein lay the contradictions that make Yo La Tengo so appealing—the dark and the light, the male and the female, the geeky acoustics and the gregarious guitar solos. Everything they do is out of character with what went before, like a fashion faux pas that’s suddenly thrust into style. Even the song itself exposes their ability to usurp expectations, Hubley taking on the Johnny Cash role and singing: “I wonder if she’s sorry / For leavin’ what we’d begun.”
The knockout punch comes a few songs later during a haunting cover of Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” Like several of tonight’s songs, “Needle of Death” is stripped bare, naked and nuanced—a cough away from being compromised. It’s an approach the band also applies to “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”, which works harmoniously despite missing the organ propulsion of its recorded counterpart. But, it’s during “Beach Party Tonight”, taken from the misunderstood and slightly maligned Summer Sun, that we find the band completely unadorned and unaffected—backing vocals and cymbals clashing to evoke an encroaching sea that apes the ambient studio version admirably.
As mentioned earlier, there were chaotic counterpoints to these moments of calm, but what the show kept coming back to was three people, three instruments, and a vast musical knowledge of not only their own back catalog but whatever we could throw at them. And their favorite mixed drink? It’s a Sidecar, which, like Yo La Tengo, is kind of a classic.