With daunting weather allegedly on the horizon and the promise of a mysterious set list courtesy of Yo La Tengo’s much-anticipated spinning wheel, there was an ominous tone permeating Exit/In on Tuesday night. And the lush, hypnotic sounds of William Tyler’s instrumental numbers as we entered Exit just after 9 p.m. just added to the suspense.
Halfway through his set, Tyler joked that Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan has been giving him tips regarding his stage banter. We’d believe it, save the fact that we’ve always found Willy T. charming and approachable. He was clearly honored to be YLT’s opener and ecstatic to be back in his hometown supporting the legendary indie-rock trio. Though the din of crowd chatter was roughly as loud as Tyler’s music, songs from his much-lauded Behold the Spirit were still completely arresting, and they translated well in a club context. You see, we’re used to catching Tyler at house shows and record shop in-stores, and as his last song — we think it was “Missionary Ridge,” but we suck at titles of instrumental songs … sorry, Willy — dissolved into looped, noisy chaos, it was plain to see that this was a hometown boy making good. We’re proud of the earnest fella and his arsenal of guitars. The cockles of The Spin’s cold heart were warmed.
OK, the wheel: Let’s get everyone up to speed. For their current tour, Yo La Tengo has constructed a free-standing, spinning wheel featuring categories including but not limited to “S Songs,” “The Name Game” and “Spinner’s Choice.” At each show, they have a fan spin the wheel (while accompanied by cheesy-ass game show music), and the band performs a 45-minute set based on whatever category the gods decide, to be followed by another 45-minute set of straight-up YLT jams. We were secretly hoping it would land on “Sit-Com Theater” — in which case Ira, James, Georgia and their crew would have had to act out an episode from “a sit-com of some vintage.” Apparently the wheel has yet to land on “Sit-Com Theater” this tour. Seriously, we really would’ve liked to see Ira play the role of Arnold Jackson in that “very special episode” of Diff’rent Strokes regarding a bike shop owner who gets a little too familiar with his young customers. Is that weird?
The Spin kept our collective fingers crossed that we’d be the lucky fan — The Spin spinning The Wheel? How apropos! — but alas, a young comic book fan named Blake got to do the honors. A friend noted that Blake kinda looked like The Spin, so we guess that’s close enough. His first turn landed on “Spin Again.” His second landed on “Dump,” meaning we got to hear 45 minutes of YLT bassist James McNew’s solo material (aka Dump). Sort of the Sebadoh to YLT’s Dinosaur Jr. We weren’t especially familiar with the Dump catalog before then, but as far as mildly Neil Young-tinted, straightforward ’90s indie rock with strong, simple melodies goes, it was pretty solid. That McNew motherfucker can sing.
As fun as Dump was, we were totally psyched when Yo La Tengo started in on their set of nuanced, new-school classics. Tunes like “Mr. Tough” from 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, for instance, were our jam — and another opportunity for McNew to flaunt that stellar falsetto of his. Their set was punctuated with two-minute stretches of wild feedback, local references and shout-outs — they have recorded in Nashville quite a bit, after all — and even an appearance from local Tony Crow (Silver Jews, Lambchop) on keys. Yo La Tengo are totally one of those groups that sneaks up on you. You know you like them, and you’re prepared to rock … but before you realize it, you’ve become that person: swaying wildly, eyes closed, pumping your fist ever so gingerly and harmonizing with Ira. Then the music stops, you open your eyes, and you realize everyone’s filing out. Not unlike the ’90s, really.