A man stands up in a dark corner of the audience and addresses the stage. “In one interview, Georgia, you talked about the beauty that’s found in accidents. Could you talk a little more about that?” From behind a modest drum set, Ms. Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo drummer, says, “I did? Well, yeah. The band is all about the beauty we find in accidents.”
As a matter of fact, the entire Freewheeling Yo La Tengo tour embodies and enables the little gems that can be conjured out of unplanned circumstance. The band’s show format on this tour breaks down the confines of the standard performance and almost entirely eschews a set list. It opts instead for conversation—between the band and the audience, between the meandering topics brought by audience questions and Yo La Tengo’s 23-year repertoire, and among the band, their instruments and their memories.
Yo La Tengo played the Birchmere in Virginia, a venue catering primarily to bluegrass and Americana fans. On their stage, Yo La Tengo quietly brought together the spirits of Hoboken and Lake Woebegone with songs spanning their career and stories of brown-outs and breaking guitar strings, of meeting the members of Mr. Show and playing Merge Festival with guitarist Ira Kaplan’s alter-ego rock band Double Dynamite.
Kaplan, Hubley and bassist James McNew sat in a neat row on stage with a simple near-acoustic setup, guitar and bass flanking a demure drum set. After a brief introduction and a couple of songs, the band opened the floor for questions. Guitarist/vocalist/etc. Kaplan encouraged fans to “ask anything at all,” and we did. We were amply rewarded with anecdotes. And jokes. And banter. And songs.
On their modest set of instruments, Yo La Tengo performed with the flawless familiarity that comes with playing together for so long. They wove a seamless history of their music and stories, and their comfortable rambles spawned more questions, more anecdotes, and more songs. “What’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why?” asked one fan, and McNew mentioned about seven or eight episodes before saying, “We can talk after the show.” “Deeper into Movies” was preceded by a discussion of movie-watching at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and a question about the “Sugarcube” video led, eventually, to the song. Kaplan’s humble wit, McNew’s nerdy jokes, and even Hubley’s stoic drummer silence evoked a fireside chat with old family friends—and their instruments.
At their most stunning, Yo La Tengo managed to sound both ethereal and earthy at the same time (earthereal?), their lyrics floating above spare yet lush instrumentations that meandered through notes and rhythms. Opening with the gentle “The Weakest Part” from last year’s I Am Not Afraid of You and Will Beat Your Ass and ending with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” in Hubley’s Nico-esque croon, the show covered almost everything in between with the expert ease of a well-honed band, and the unassuming humor of a best friend since second grade.