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October 26, 2007
One thing you have to love about Yo La Tengo is their willingness to put themselves in challenging situations. Would any other quite feedback-laden band be willing to strip down to acoustics and brushes for two hours on the altar in a church, all the while fielding, nay, encouraging impertinent questions and impromptu requests from the audience? That's what their Philadelphia fans witnessed this past Monday evening. It was a complete 180 from when this devoted fanatic left the Pitchfork Music Festival last year bitching that they refused to play anything not from the then-unreleased I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.

With their WFMU-sponsoring cover song marathons, guest-clogged annual Hanukkah bonanza at their hometown turf club Maxwell's (featuring none other than Sun Ra's Arkestra one year), and now the (clears throat) "Freewheelin' Yo La Tengo tour," it's possible I may never see a "normal" Yo La show. But while it might be satisfying to see a standard electric hits set and finally hear "Sugarcube" (which has evaded me several times now), the unpredictability and fallibility of this VH1 Storytellers-inspired acoustic-plus-Q&A setup was as exciting and entertaining an acoustic set as I've seen.

One relieving factor is that there should be a big asterisk next to the word "acoustic." After one chucklehead behind me requested last year's ten-minute feedback tsunami "Pass the Hatchet," "acoustically, because it would be funny-funny like the circus" (shit you not, those were his words, wrote 'em down), the band shockingly complied, with Ira Kaplan's effects pedals shooting fuzz and screech everywhere like confetti. The Velvets' already punked-out "I Heard Her Call My Name" sounded ten times more irreverent following a question asking the band if they're sick of being compared to the seminal 1960s band. I should add that Kaplan's brand of simmering noise comes with the wildly entertaining visual of him convulsing in his seat (yes, seated) while scratching up his axe. Not that Yo La Tengo need these cathartic moments - they're the most consistent balladeers on the planet - but you have to love balladeers who can prove they're hot shit even though they don't have to. That could mean an off-the-cuff run through Sun Ra's experimental bebop "Rocket #9" or a brave rendition their ambient piece "Beach Party Tonight," which I mistakenly thought was studio-grounded.

But those ballads are the band's bread and butter: bossa-nova-in-a-can "Center of Gravity" is still one of the most beautiful songs ever even sped up, the underrated Summer Sun's "Little Eyes" even more skeletal and moving than on the album. I'll probably dig out the Today is the Day EP more often now that Georgia Hubley's beautifully stark b-side "Needle of Death" has punched me in the gut. Hubley's ghostly voice is the band's secret weapon; it often contrasts with her husband's wild riffing in a strange envelope, close to how I imagine perfection. The songs' unplugged treatment left some big ones unrecognizable: only afterward did I realize the pretty tune with the uncanny resemblance to Luna's classic "Chinatown" was actually "From a Motel 6," from 1993's Painful, where it more resembles a duet with an electric toothbrush.

The "Storytelling" portion of the performance was certainly worth the trouble as well, with Kaplan not above being smug enough to shoot down stupid queries when need be. But the anecdotes about playing on a stage next to the bathroom and being afraid to play the Grateful Dead's Live/Dead sober were almost worth the time they time took up instead of adding on "Today is the Day" or "Paul is Dead." The sole disappointment of the evening was a version of "Autumn Sweater" with a questionable jazz flute soloing from some mysterious fellow named Danny Ray Thompson. But that eerily Anchorman-esque moment didn't stop the performance from being one of the most unique and unpredictable I've seen in ages. And in the "Freewheelin'" spirit, I leave you with a Yo La anecdote of my own:

My photographer's question for the band: "What's the most annoying assumption you always read about yourselves in the press?"

Kaplan: "For some reason, people seem to have this idea that me and Georgia are married."
--
Photo by Liam Carroll.

SETLIST
The Weakest Part
Barnaby, Hardly Working
Black Flowers
Cry, Cry, Cry
Nowhere Near
I Still Miss Someone [Johnny Cash]
Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind
Needle of Death [Bert Jansch]
Center of Gravity
Let's Save Tony Orlando's House
Little Eyes
Beach Party Tonight
I Heard Her Call My Name [The Velvet Underground]
From a Motel 6
Mr. Tough
-(encore)-
Rocket #9 [Sun Ra]
Autumn Sweater
Love Train [O'Jays]

SEE ALSO: www.yolatengo.com
SEE ALSO: www.firstuu-philly.org
SEE ALSO: www.wfmu.org

--
Dan Weiss
Dan Weiss is the music editor for LAS. Formerly an editorial intern at CMJ and creator of the now defunct What was It Anyway?, his work has appeared in Village Voice, Pitchfork, Philadelphia Inquirer, Stylus and Crawdaddy among others. He resides in Brooklyn where he enjoys questionable lifestyle choices and loud guitars.

See other articles by Dan Weiss.

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