TVD Live: Yo La Tengo at the Lincoln Theatre, 9/25

PHOTOS: KRISTIN HORGEN | I like to think it’s because of Ira Kaplan’s origins as a rock writer for the Village Voice and the old New York Rocker, that he and his wife Georgia Hubley have a vast record collection they constantly return to, examining old 45s and listening to B sides. Undoubtedly they also have good taste.

So every decade and a half in their band Yo La Tengo, they’ve come up with an album of mostly covers of obscurities and more widely known songs rendered in a generally loving, folkie style that makes them also re-approach some of their own material accordingly. What happened on 1990’s Fakebook is happening again on their recent Stuff Like That There, the tour of which landed at D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre Friday.

Less than 10 months since their last visit to town, with a 30th anniversary show at the 9:30 that blended their louder and more experimental forays with their quieter stuff, the theater show was a hushed, practically chamber rock affair.

The audience sat in their theater rows, rapt; the band stood, including Hubley, before her sparse standup drum set of snare, tom, cymbal, and barely heard kick-bass. This put her on equal line with her bandmates, and rightly so, since her ethereal singing has always been an appeal when she wasn’t tastefully harmonizing with Kaplan. Kaplan seemed to be experimenting with his own vocals too, singing as softly as the audience would allow. And the absolutely still audience let him go to whispers at times.

With third member James McNew on standup bass and occasional harmonies, it gave them the appearance of an indie rock Peter Paul and Mary, though as folkie as it got, this Ira, James and Georgia stuck to covering Antietam, The Scene is Now, and Hank Williams instead of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

Joining the trio, crucially, was on again/off again guitarist Dave Schramm, who had been with the band in the early days and back on the whole of both Fakebook and Stuff, his electric guitar and lap steel stylings giving essential coloring (and a bit of rock and country footing) to the otherwise acoustic trio.

It all came on a stage that was charmingly decorated with several paintings perched on music stands—of kitties, bunnies, abstracts, and old guys (including, fittingly, Lincoln), as well as the fine Klee-like monochromatic abstract that Hubley painted for its current cover.

With the red velvet curtain behind them, the arrangement of paintings, the flat white lighting and their own reverent, non-showy approach, it had the appearance of Fine Arts Night at P.S. 131, a charm that carried over into the music.

They began with the splendid Flamin’ Groovies song “You Tore Me Down” and one of the two new songs they wrote for Stuff, “Rickety” before going deep into the soul obscurity of a track by the Parliaments (back before they became just Parliament) and the better known delight “I’m Your Puppet” by James & Bobby Purify.

A twang set the scene for the still and shimmering “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and the Lovin’ Spoonful cover, “Butchie’s Tune.” And doing the Velvet Underground’s “Over You” fit well their own sparse New York art-rock footing.

McNew, who gets inventive on keyboards on other Yo La Tengo projects, seemed underused a bit in this format, plunking the stand-up bass with a glower (all three seemed to perform with eyes closed). But there was a great moment when he sang lead, providing a terrific keening Carl Wilson falsetto on “I Can Hear Music” with the surprise that comes when the biggest guy gives the most angelic performance.

It was an excellent set list of course, with the crowd-pleasing Cure cover “Friday I’m in Love,” the poppy oldies “My Heart’s Not In It,” and “Somebody’s in Love” as well as some of the best of their own songs, from “The Summer” and “Ohm,” to the dreamy favorite “Today is the Day.”

Since it seemed at times more like a recital, sometimes the crowd didn’t know how to respond in the usual rock show way. Only a couple of times did someone shout a request, and when doing so did in a full sentence: “I would love to hear ‘Tom Courtenay’” or “Oklahoma U.S.A., please.” But while they didn’t do that Kinks song, they did the “Courtenay” to start the first of two encores that also included “Autumn Sweater” and the Beatles’ “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party.”

An acoustic set of covers may not be what you need every time out from Yo La Tengo, but it was such a rewarding occasional experience (kind of like a super blood moon eclipse) that we’ll look forward to them coming around doing it again, at this rate, in 2040.

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