Yo La Tengo lost the crowd about five minutes into the band's first set. When I say "band's first set," you no doubt assume I'm talking about a band playing music live on stage. That's certainly what the crowd came to see. But it's not what they got, at least for starters.
It almost got ugly, the unfortunate result of a well-meaning trio that's been on the road since the '80s and is trying to shake things up a little -- for themselves as much as for fans.
You'd get bored, too. Think of it: You're a rock act, you get some notice early on, maybe some hits, and your career begins. Album, tour, album, tour, sometimes tour, tour, tour. Even building a set list by rolling Dungeons & Dragons dice, as Weezer once did, can't prevent the shows from becoming monotonous, particularly several decades on.
So you change it up, try some gimmicks. It'll juice ticket sales, and it'll keep your head in the game. The latest and most widely applied concert gimmick: playing an entire "classic" album start-to-finish. Weezer just did that, too, playing its first two albums in two nights at the Aragon Ballroom. Chicago has seen live album shows by Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, Sebadoh, Mission of Burma, Liz Phair, Roger Waters and more, and they just keep coming. In the coming months, we're getting Echo & the Bunnymen playing "Crocodiles" and the Flaming Lips playing "The Soft Bulletin." Next week, the Church is playing three of its albums in one night at Park West.
In 1986, Elvis Costello had written enough songs in 10 years to trot out the Spinning Songbook; fans came on stage, spun a "Wheel of Fortune"-like disc containing the names of numerous Costello songs, and the band played whatever the pointer demanded. On Friday, in fact, Costello announced he's doing it again. His 10-date Revolver Tour this May brings back the Spinning Songbook, featuring 40 hits, rarities and covers (tickets for the May 15 show at the Chicago Theatre went on sale Saturday, 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com).
Yo La Tengo is way ahead of him. Or behind. For the veteran indie-rock band's latest tour -- just playing, not supporting anything, unless they're still somehow pushing 2009's "Popular Songs" album -- they've got their own spinning wheel. The first of two 45-minute sets on this tour is determined by one spin of a wheel, which contains options such as "Songs Starting with 'S'," "The Sounds of Science" (an instrumental score), "The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo" (a "Storytellers"-like Q&A session), a set of covers by the band's alter ego (the Condo F---s), a set by bassist James McNew's side project Dump, and more.
Before arriving for their Friday night show at Chicago's Metro, this two-week leg of the band's tour the wheel had not yet fallen on another option, "Sitcom Theater." It didn't land there Friday night, either, but we got it anyway. A curly-haired fan named William spun the wheel and got "Spinner's Choice." He confessed he was curious enough to see "Sitcom Theater." The band's leader, Ira Kaplan, said, "Thank you, William. For the rest of you, we're really sorry."
Kaplan, his wife and drummer Georgia Hubley, and McNew grabbed scripts and began a staged reading of "The Chinese Restaurant," an episode of "Seinfeld." For five minutes, this was pretty funny. Kaplan was the only one trying to actually act, and he sounds remarkably like Jerry Seinfeld. Hubley was Elaine, McNew was George, and various stagehands provided bit parts.
But halfway through the half-hearted reading, the crowd turned. As McNew read one of George's lines -- "We're living in a society! We're supposed to act in a civilized way!" -- the catcalls began. "Play some f---ing music!" someone shouted. Cheers emboldened more such demands. A woman next to me said, "OK, I'm bored now." The balcony began stomping, others clapping but not applauding. Kaplan chuckled, but kept going. Elaine's line, with zero inflection from Georgia, echoed the crowd's feelings: "Where am I? Is this a dream? What in God's name is going on here?" Then, finally, after 20 minutes, it was done. "That wasn't worth trudging through the snow for, that's for sure," said one fan.
The band then had the audacity to take a 25-minute intermission.
When they returned, they played (ha!) "The Room Got Heavy" (from an album almost appropriate to the situation titled "I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass"). Their bungled experiment -- lame sketch comedy in the home of Second City -- left them with some make-up jamming to do, and they played an occasionally fiery 16-song second set that swung through Kaplan's wild, '50s-hipster keyboard mashing and Hubley's determined, cymbal-shy drumming. By the second, hushed encore (Sun Ra's "Somebody's in Love"!), all was forgiven.
In the end, we couldn't blame them for trying, but let this serve as a cautionary tale for other bands coming up with brilliant ideas on the tour bus at 3 a.m. Leave the theatrical ambitions to Green Day, please.