Up to now, Yo La Tengo has never played in Sonoma County, which is only surprising when you realize the band was formed all the way back in 1986. Surely, you think, the enduring indie-before-there-was-“indie” band might have played some regular local stop on the college-rock circuit over the years: the Studio KAFE, the River Theater, or Cafe This. But no.
So it was a pretty special thing that Yo La Tengo played not one but two shows today—one at the Last Record Store and one at the Mystic Theatre. The Last Record Store show was such a rarity, in fact, that I talked to an eighth grader whose parents had written a note to the school saying he had a dentist’s appointment so he could get out of class and come see Yo La Tengo.
There’s a famous Onion headline, “37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster,” and not until you see the band at a record store do you realize the truth inherent in that joke. Before playing, band members flipped through the dollar bins idly, debated among themselves about the packaging on a Bad Brains CD and made jokes about Johnny Winter. They were made for record stores, and vice-versa; the Last Record Store had a fantastic painted window display for the show, and one amazing fan, Steve Ciaffa, donated to the band copies of Yo La Tengo albums he’d personally recorded and manufactured for them… on 8-Track.
The setup for this tour is semi-acoustic, with only a couple drums and minimally electrified guitars. Opening with “Tom Courtenay,” played with delicate dynamics, the band meandered into “Periodically Double or Triple,” which was interrupted by a spontaneous PSA from Ira on wearing a bike helmets. The band meandered through a pretty version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” laughed about Jimmy Buffett, made a baby cry by stepping on the distortion pedal, played “Speeding Motorcycle,” beat back repeated requests for “Gates of Steel,” and ultimately ended with “Gates of Steel” anyway—hilariously, after the incessant requester had left!
The sold-out show at the Mystic Theatre later followed the promised “freewheeling” format, with questions taken from the audience. Did you know that Yo La Tengo, for all their sort of lo-fi intellectualism, are a total bunch of funny-ass people? I had no idea. (First Q: “Biggie or Tupac?” A: “Biggie. Sorry—east coast. I’m from Brooklyn, motherfucker!”)
Questions ranged from esoteric technical stuff—the drum sound on their song “Saturday”—to vague inquiries about what they were “into” when they started the band. (“Weed, ceramics, and chips.”) Everyone in the band howled at a question related to Petaluma’s status as the home of competitive arm wrestling, and they even acted out an arm-wrestling contest for their encore. For a complete play-by-play, Andy over at Advantage Sound has the full report on the set, which included their semi-hit “Sugarcube” along with covers of the Monkees, the Beatles, the Gun Club, the Flamin’ Groovies, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and more.
The fun part, for me, was watching the band suss out thinly veiled song requests. Someone asked “What happens when Night Falls on Hoboken?” and was instantly shot down. Unfortunately, I was dying to hear “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and in a valiant attempt to sort of slyly guide the band to that title, I raised my hand and asked what was probably the dumbest question of the night: “Is it ethical to force a newborn baby to listen to Grand Funk Railroad?”
But Yo La Tengo is way too good at this game. They knew what was up immediately. “We’ll get to that song,” Ira said, consolingly. “It involves a lot of tuning and everything, but we’ll get to it.”
Sure enough, the main set ended with “We’re an American Band” (note: not the actual Grand Funk Railroad song), giving Ira an opportunity to reprise one of the greatest on-record guitar freakouts of all time: halfway through the song, he punched the foot pedal, leaned back to his small amp and turned up the knobs, and let loose on four minutes of loud, distorted, mangled bliss.
Yo La Tengo’s so natural at this “freewheeling” thing that after this tour I can’t imagine them going back to playing “regular” shows. Next year, if someone asks them a question mid-set, what are they gonna do—say “shut up”? They’re clearly having a lot of fun with this setup, and it’s a hell of a hoot for the audience too.