Shut Up and Listen

So, imagine that Ira Kaplan invites you over to his apartment one night for some music and political debate. Georgia Hubley and James McNew are there, of course, but so are six or seven others you don’t recognize. There’s William Tyler from Lambchop, who’s strumming away tastefully at the back of the room; David Kilgour, a guitarist and songriter from New Zealand; and Sue Garner, another singer/songwriter who you could swear is playing her guitar with a paint brush. You don’t catch the names of the pedal steel player from Nashville, the bari sax player, or the guy playing percussion. Oh yeah, and there’s a comedian there, too.

And then imagine that a couple of the other guests–not the musicians, but other folks like yourself who have been invited to sit in on the show–get a bit drunk and get a bit offended by one of the comedian’s jokes. So offended, in fact, that one of those “guests” actually throws his drink at the comedian. As you can imagine, Ira would be pretty pissed.

That’s sort of what happened last night, when Yo La Tengo’s Swing State Tour made an unlikely stop in Knoxville. As many as ten people were on stage at a time, playing each others’ songs, shuffling instruments, switching (as Yo La Tengo is wont to do) from sweet lounge to noise rock. They played three long sets, with comedy during the breaks, and didn’t stop until 1:30. This despite the assholes who almost ruined everything and who make me ashamed of my city. “And people ask me why we never come to Knoxville,” Ira said.

The exchange was kind of interesting to watch, actually. Touring musicians tend to compare their relationships with their bandmates to a marriage, but I’d never seen that dynamic up close before. Ira was seriously pissed, even interrupting one song to tell us all to “Shut up and listen, or leave,” and his anger was perfectly justified. When, during the final encore, I turned around to tell another drunk asshole to shut up, the schmuck asked me to tell him to shut up again so that he could kick my ass. (I’m pretty sure that that was the first time my ass has been so threatened, which is perhaps a sad indictment on the safe comfort of my life.) When Ira turned to James and told him he “didn’t feel like rocking now,” James muttered, “I do,” and counted off the next song. James and Georgia both spent much of the rest of the evening with a familiar look on their faces– familiar, at least, to anyone who has ever known when it is best to just let it go, when it is best to simply let a friend be angry.

By 1 am, Ira was still angry, but much of the tension had been diffused by Todd Barry’s return to the stage for a second, more successful comedy bit, and by a whole lot of great, loud, angry music. The energy peaked somewhere between the moment when the quiet percussionist stepped up and delivered a blistering punk scream, “Nuclear War,” and the band’s furious cover of “What’s So Funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Easily the best, longest, and most energetic show I’ve seen in Knoxville, and one that, unfortunately, will likely never be repeated. (I sure as hell wouldn’t come back here if I didn’t have to.)