The last time Yo La Tengo took the stage at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, it was the fall of 1994, the trio had just released the loose and hazy electric masterwork “Painful” — perhaps their most beloved album to date — and they were opening shows for Johnny Cash.
Cash himself had just released the first of his seminal American Recordings albums, thirteen tracks of bare-bones acoustic guitar picking and no backing musicians at all, just the Man in Black alone and exposed, filling hollow songs with his soulful, cracked baritone croon.
These two records — “Painful” and “American Recordings” — side by side, present quite the contrast, so it’s maybe not such a shock that the country-loving audience at the Keswick wasn’t really feeling Yo La Tengo’s brand of dreamy, sonic ambience.
“People did not care for us,” remembers bassist James McNew, chuckling. “It was a Johnny Cash audience,” a crowd more interested in the old-school western grit of “Give My Love to Rose” than the somersaulting, seven-minute garage-rock instrumental “I Heard You Looking.”
“They were not exactly sure what to make of us,” he said.
Remembering that night — more than 20 years ago now — McNew’s voice holds not even a hint of chagrin. For Yo La Tengo, the crowd’s thick indifference was nothing next to the thrill of meeting and mingling with country music’s elder statesman.
“It was like a dream,” McNew says. “There was Johnny Cash walking around backstage, introducing himself to everyone and meeting fans. We got to stand in the wings and watch [Cash and wife June Carter Cash] play and hear them talking off mic. It was literally like seeing a superhero walking around and being ten feet away from him, and shaking his hand. It was unforgettable.”
McNew, speaking over the phone late last week, credits the experience with helping to teach him and bandmates Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley how to be gracious headliners years later when they themselves would ascend to the status of indie rock’s elder statesmen.
“This was at a time when we would be opening shows and tours for other bands,” he said. “The degree of hospitality and everything that [Cash and company] offered us was really kind of astonishing to us at that point … I think it really informed our behavior. They treated us so nicely, like humans. I think we just weren’t really accustomed to being treated like humans until then.”
Decades later, Yo La Tengo is a thirty-year-old band — several lifetimes in the music industry — and still making subtle, powerful rock, like 2013’s “Fade,” a sprawling record of buzzing, humming, heartfelt mood music. Themselves now veteran musicians, the band is perhaps taking yet another cue from late-career Johnny Cash, with the recent release of “Stuff Like That There,” their stripped-down, vaguely twangy record of cover tunes not so different in premise from Cash’s own American Recordings.
“Stuff Like That There” is a mostly acoustic work — save for Dave Schramm’s swimmy, Nels Cline-like electric guitar — that tackles songs by a mixed bag of artists, including Hank Williams, Antietam and The Parliaments, with just a couple originals tossed in.
The standout track is a sleepy version of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” that manages to find new heart in the classic pop song. It can be a chancy game recording a tune as well-known and sprightly as “Friday” — there is slight risk of the cover seeming more hokey than sincere — so it’s to the band’s credit that the product is endearing.
Discussing the delicate art of the cover song, McNew relates the time he saw Louis C.K. perform in a New York City comedy club, back “when you could still see Louis in a place that holds 100 people.”
“He was on the bill with Todd Barry and a few other comics,” he says, “and in the middle of the set, Louis told one of Todd’s jokes, and after it got a huge laugh, he was like, ‘That’s one of Todd Barry’s jokes — I always wanted to tell that joke.’ Like, he did a cover of Todd’s joke. And Todd seemed really freaked out!”
The point of the story, McNew says, is that musicians — unlike, say, comedians — enjoy the unique luxury of messing with another artist’s work without threatening anyone’s sense of property.
“I guess the rules are different in music,” he says. “You can cover somebody’s song and they’ll be like, ‘Aw, I’m flattered!’ But if you steal somebody’s joke, you might get shot. I’m really glad Robert Smith [of The Cure] isn’t out there waiting behind a corner.
“But then again,” he deadpans after a moment, “I don’t know that for sure. He could be.”
Yo La Tengo, in truth, has been perfecting the art of the cover song for decades, “Stuff Like That There” being a spiritual sequel to 1990’s “Fakebook,” a record that followed a similar format but lacked the ambience the band later explored in Painful — and definitely lacked the rootsy aesthetic of SLTT.
“I think that there are kind of atmospheric moments, or experimental moments, in ‘Stuff Like That There’ that maybe weren’t really even in existence at the time of ‘Fakebook,’ ” McNew says, “but somehow they’re just kind of part of our personalities now and part of our musical vocabulary.”
And, as far as live performances go, that musical vocabulary is still evolving, he says. The upcoming Keswick show (on Sept. 24), for example, not only marks a return to the place where, decades earlier, Yo La Tengo watched John and June Cash charming a tough audience — the performance will be among the first dates on a tour that promises to challenge the band in fresh ways.
“This tour will be unlike — good lord, unlike anything we’ve ever done before,” says McNew, who has been learning to play upright bass for these all-acoustic shows. “We need all the prep time we can get.”
Trepidation aside, though, the challenge is all part of the fun, he says. There is distinct pleasure in rearranging older tunes to suit a more minimalist set up, to pick up one of their more blustery, opaquely loud songs and then find its quiet beauty.
“I think playing quietly is something that we always keep really close to us,” he says. Over time, Yo La Tengo has conditioned itself “to be able to take any song and have it be open to multiple arrangements, as far as intensity or speed or anything like that, and just kind of take a very Zen approach: Nothing is done. Nothing is finished. Everything is open to change.”