Even from a band as eclectic as Yo La Tengo, the announcement that "we're here to play a few songs but mostly just to chat with you" was an unusual opening salvo. But Thursday's pair of shows at the MFA was part of the trio's intimate, stripped-down "Freewheeling" tour, and wheel freely they did.
There was lots of banter, not much distortion, and countless spontaneous segues cued by random comments from the audience. A query about David Kilgour led to a comment about his old band Snapper which led to a cover of a Snapper song. "Would you be willing to play a rocking version of 'Today Is the Day'?" asked one fan. They were, and the song, written and sung by drummer Georgia Hubley, gave guitarist Ira Kaplan one of precious few opportunities to wig out during a show that highlighted Yo La Tengo's melodic pop over its chaotic rock.
Yes, the Hoboken indie darlings are masters of brushed beats and barely there vocals. But the show's best moments featured a headier collision, of sweetness and noise, that materialized briefly on "Stockholm Syndrome" and - most thrillingly - took root during the group's wild, beautiful performance of "Deeper Into Movies."
Questions flowed freely; so did snarky answers, most from Kaplan. "What happened to the Yankees?" asked an audience member. "Did we come here in 1987 and ask what happened to the Red Sox?" Kaplan shot back. And so it went, sometimes leading to songs.
A fan wanted to know what the band was going to play on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend, prompting a surprised Kaplan to reveal what he believed to be a secret: Yo La Tengo will be tonight's musical guest when the cast of "SNL" (on forced hiatus due to the writer's strike) gathers for a one-off performance at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York. Boston was treated to a dress rehearsal of the humble dance tune "Mr. Tough," anchored by Kaplan's and bassist James McNew's fabulous, fused falsettos.
"Will there be a 'Fakebook' 2?" wondered a devotee of the band's 1990 covers album. No, there won't, but the inquiry inspired a sad, lovely rendition of the Flamin' Groovies' "You Tore Me Down."
Yo La Tengo is renowned for its copious collection of imaginative covers; on Thursday they recast the R&B oldie "Be Thankful for What You Got" as a moody meditation, turned in a searing take on Rex Garvin's underground garage rocker "Emulsified," and paid homage to Dylan (with "4th Time Around," one of two tracks the group recorded for the "I'm Not There" soundtrack) and Neil Young ("Don't Cry No Tears"). Twenty-three years on, the group is as interesting, and interested, as ever.