Relationships need a little variety to survive 30 years, and Yo La Tengo is no different. In its third decade, the Hoboken, N.J., rockers have spiced things up through role-playing: impaling itself on unpracticed radio requests for a good cause (2006's WFMU benefit Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics) and inventing New England's meanest garage band to pay tribute to its musical heroes (the distortion-torched F—kbook, released last year by Matador under the moniker Condo F—ks).
When Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew take the stage at Tipitina's Saturday, the first order of business will be deciding which identities to assume for their first set — or, more accurately, letting fate decide. The possibilities, as arranged on the band's traveling, spinning "wheel of fortune" (trademark pending), include the Condos f—king up should-be classics by the Small Faces and Flamin' Groovies; Dump, McNew's sometime side-project, feigning a sexless Prince; and the Sounds of Science, watery instrumentals inspired by the under-the-sea documentary shorts of French art-filmmaker Jean Painleve (e.g. "How Some Jellyfish are Born"). There's also the typical YLT tomfoolery: subsets "Songs That Start With the Letter 'S'" (oddly, they have many) and "The Name Game" (song titles featuring names, of which they have even more). A second spin, at yolatengo.com/thewheelylt, will award show tickets to one winner daily.
"New Orleans is one of the few cities where the Condo F—ks have played," Kaplan says. "We've got a lot of ways we like to play, and we'd rather not tell people in advance what we're going to do. Some of the live music events going on right now are kind of overly programmed. I like the idea of going to a show and not knowing what's going to happen. And so we were having trouble integrating these really formatted ways of playing — whether it's freewheeling Yo La Tengo, whether it's the Condo F—ks, whether it's the music we wrote for Jean Painleve's movies — doing that and still maintaining the spontaneity and the air of surprise."
The last time Kaplan and crew came to town, in April 2009, they left Yo La Tengo at home altogether, performing one show as the Condos at One Eyed Jacks and another as the A-Bones, who backed actual Flamin' Groovies Roy Loney and Cyril Jordan in a Ponderosa Stomp reunion. "Georgia and I haven't missed one since the first time we went," says Kaplan, a former rock critic. "I think it was the third year. We've missed some of the local ones, ironically. We miss the New York events far more often than we miss the New Orleans ones."
After the Pat Sajak shenanigans, the second set at Tip's will ensure fans get what they came for. Released in 2009, Popular Songs, the band's 12th LP, continued one of indie rock's longest winning streaks with a reliably excellent helping of whispered tropical pop and Kaplan's boundless guitar masturbations. "We liked the idea of putting the shorter songs at the top," he says, "[i]t almost is like two different records, the short songs and the epics. But when we gave the record to Matador, there were a couple of things we recorded that we didn't propose to be on the record. They were — I wouldn't say adamant, but they encouraged us to include (15-minute closer) 'And the Glitter is Gone.' So it was like, all right, we thought we were trying to help you guys out by turning in a record under three hours long. But if you insist on another one, we're very capable of delivering."