Thursday night saw Hoboken heroes Yo La Tengo paying homage to one of America’s most-beloved game shows in syndicated history: the Merv Griffin Enterprises icon, Wheel Of Fortune. As the chintzy, brass-laden theme music blared, guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan chose a random member of the crowd to come on stage and, with one flick of the wrist, decide the musical fate of the entire audience. The concept was simple. The band would perform two sets for the night: the first, a selection of ultra-rarities determined by a makeshift Technicolor wheel rolled onto the forefront of the stage; the second, a more traditional grab-bag assortment spanning the band’s discography—no small feat for a three-piece that has produced over 20 releases since its formation back in 1984.
Kaplan, in pure Pat Sajak fashion, proceeded to give the unsuspecting crowd a quick run-down of the entertainment options for the evening. Among the possible outcomes were the following: “Sounds Of Science Pt. 1” (a collection the group put together to score an oceanographic documentary), “Dump” (a set composed of songs written by bassist James McNew’s solo project), “Songs That Begin With the Letter ‘S’” (self-explanatory), “Sounds Of Science Pt. 2″, “Sitcom Theatre” (to which Kaplan quipped, “Don’t ask”), and finally, “Condo F****s” (a set of covers the band recorded under said alias). The brave participant licked her lips, wiped the sweat from her brow, placed her hand upon the spindles of the wheel, and gave it a whirl as the onlookers looked on with hope.
A silence presided as the wheel clicked past “Sitcom Theatre” and “Songs That Begin With The Letter ‘S’” before finally resting—to the dismay of many—on “Sounds Of Science Pt. 2.” A collective groan went up from the masses; Kaplan admitted that, when they decided on the wheel concept, “One of the things [they] anticipated most was hearing the groans from the audience.” Undeterred, Kaplan and Co. obeyed the wheel’s prophecy, and launched into an instrumental set, conjuring up visions of wind-swept waves with their first number, and gradually progressing into more dissonant, Jaws-invoking feeding frenzies. Around the 20-minute mark, Kaplan grabbed his guitar and recaptured the audience’s attention with an ear-splitting wave of distortion, which signaled the highlight of the first set: a descent into slimy-sounding guitar effects, murky funk bass, and drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley’s tom fills, culminating in a deafening wall of noise.
The second set (which felt almost like an apology of sorts) was by far the highlight, peppered with fan favorites from earlier years, such as “Autumn Sweater,” the heart-string-yanking, “Last Days Of Disco,” and the bass-line driven “Moby Octopad.” The band also paid tribute to Sun Ra before closing with a 20+ minute rendition of “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”—during which, ever the showman, Kaplan proceeded to de-tune his guitar, swing it by its neck, and beat it into submission. The encore, summoned by poly-rhythmic-clapping, found McNew trying his hand at the Devo classic “Gates Of Steel,” and Hubley timidly intoning the final number, an acoustic rendition of “Tom Courtenay”—an apropos conclusion to an evening punctuated by chance and consequence. —James Porter