Holiday Guide: Yo La Tengo Celebrates 10 Years of Hanukkah Miracles

This is not my first holiday season dating a goy—the apple-cheeked daughter of a minister, even. But it is the first winter in our time together that Hanukkah will overlap with Christmas. I fully expect to spend this December 24th and 25th and 26th celebrating Christ's birth amid snow-lined New England streets, candles flickering warmly in windows, tree branches bowing gently under picturesque wintry weight. Or, more likely, hanging out in the kitchen guzzling nog and braiding good cheer with the natural gravitas of the season, while peering out over the frosted lawn.

That's what happens, right? I'm only guessing here. These are new traditions and duties to your humble correspondent, whose heart will surely in some part be with his people. And my people, those nights, will be in Hoboken.

Hanukkah, at least among the secular Jews that I grew up around, was always regarded with a bit of suspicion. My family could manage to get a little worked up for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. For Hanukkah, we'd light a menorah, maybe even make potato pancakes, but there was nothing remotely serious about the occasion. I think it's like that for most Jews, even observant ones. Which is why it's sort of a Christmas miracle that, in my mid-20s, Hanukkah suddenly became extraordinarily meaningful to my un-bar mitzvahed self.

What happened, in part, was that I discovered the band Yo La Tengo. Starting a decade ago this December, and more years than not since then, the Hoboken-based trio has performed benefit shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah at Maxwell's, the bar where they got their start in the early 1980s. Unannounced comedians and musical guests, combined with Yo La Tengo's massive 30-year songbook composed of 17 full-lengths, nearly 1,000 cover tunes, and occasional stupid/brilliant stunts like performing a table reading of a Seinfeld episode, have made being anywhere else on any one of those nights an increasingly unthinkable thought.

"It's a Saturday mitzvah," piped up a younger Yo La Tengo relative from the front row of Maxwell's 200-person-capacity back room one night in 2007, one of two consecutive evenings when former Big Star guitarist Alex Chilton stopped by.

"With or without a menorah," guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan added. The band's electric menorah, balanced as usual on an amp next to drummer Georgia Hubley, had a handwritten "out of order" sign affixed to it.

"What does that mean?" the Tennessee-born Chilton asked.

"She said 'It's a Saturday mitzvah,' which is a good thing," Kaplan explained. "So, with or without a menorah, it's a good thing." He paused. "Just kind of beatnik jive talk."

It earned a laugh, as it should have, but the joy of that interaction—Yo La Tengo and Alex Chilton together at Maxwell's singing Big Star's "Jesus Christ" over the holidays—was kind of beatnik jive talk. Since Kaplan's days as a barely legal on-the-scene columnist for the SoHo Weekly News and later co-booking the influential Music For Dozens series at Folk City, both long before Yo La Tengo's 1984 founding, the band members have existed somewhere near the center of the still-cozy community of first-generation obsessives dumped under the "indie rock" umbrella. Yo La Tengo's fans and friends have long been music journalists and DJs, label magnates and promoters, and, yes, musicians. But mostly they're fans, connected by secret knowledge of the underground, the right records to listen to, the best tiny show one can find on a given night, and probably the best nearby restaurant.

Lately, it is a secret knowledge that has become open to all who know the right things to Google. Even if one missed The Feelies at CBGB in 1977 (I, for one, was still a year away from being born), with just 24 keystrokes—"feelies live mediafire"—some semblance of that experience can now be yours. Not that one needs to know that Kaplan and Hubley met at a Feelies show if Glenn Mercer or Bill Million show up to play (as they did last year), nor that the Maxwell's holiday-show tradition began with The Feelies, nor the two bands' long, tangled histories with each other and their home venue. But it makes it for a richer experience.

Yo La Tengo's live show has long been something worth seeing, an ever-changing array of kaleidoscopic moods and setlists. Nowhere is this more true than at Maxwell's, where Kaplan's extended free-squonk guitar solos are blissfully loud, and the crowd usually gets quiet enough to appreciate the whispering harmonies, quiet Hubley-sung ballads, and unpredictable soulful turns perfected on their quartet of albums from 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One through 2003's Summer Sun.

But then, with its un–New York coatrack, cold-weather-perfect comfort food (chicken potpie!), and no-bullshit setup, there's really no better place in the New York area to see anyone than Maxwell's. If you can't identify the surprise opening act dining with Yo La Tengo a few tables over before the show, you might wander toward the stage to see who has been posted as the evening's guests—bands just as likely to be local friends as top-billed talent like (last year alone) Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, soul legend Syl Johnson, and the reunited Mission of Burma, most of whom joined in for their host's sets as well.

For that matter, a sit-in with Yo La Tengo rarely becomes a rehash of a guest's most notable numbers. When David Byrne materialized in 2002, there was nary a "Psycho Killer" or "Once In A Lifetime" in sight. Instead they dusted off "Pulled Up," not heard since the early Talking Heads days, a cover of fellow CBGBite Richard Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts" (as one of the band's now-traditional "seasonal" numbers paying tribute to great Jewish songwriters), and YLT's own "Tears Are In Your Eyes," with Byrne contributing a stunning and unexpected harmony vocal.

And then there are the comedians, fresh laughter being a far more literal and legitimate winter warm-up than a wait through even the most surprising or welcome support act. And the $10 mix discs (proceeds to charity, of course) that have been contributed over the years by everybody from novelist Jonathan Lethem to Japanese psychedelic mainstay Yamataka Eye of The Boredoms.

All of this is part of it, the reason why I—and at least a few dozen other people I might name—will find a way to get to at least half of the performances during this year's sold-out installment, which begins December 20. (Sold-out or not, there are usually face-value tickets floating around on Craigslist or even at Maxwell's itself.)

Really, it's that these are my people, and this is our place to be, where rock still burns in an eight-days-a-week continuum between the Velvet Underground at Max's Kansas City and whatever post-punk noise is burbling up in the deepest warehouses of Brooklyn, Tokyo, London, and everywhere in between. In Hoboken, over Hanukkah, it is more than the ersatz community one buys into at Death Star loading bays masquerading as indie-rock mega-venues like Terminal 5. At Maxwell's, there are no ticket scanners, thuggish security guards, roadie teams, VIP balconies, Facebook promotions, or sense of endless rules, but some remnant of rock music at the natural, human scale it was always meant to exist in.

"Family" is a hard metaphor to invoke, and I certainly hope not to use it if forced to explain over Christmas dinner. Despite the fact that this year's Hanukkah shows will likely include one of the regular guest appearances by Ira Kaplan's mother or perhaps even a niece or nephew (as in the killer opening set by The Pubes in '04), Hanukkah at Maxwell's is probably closer to utopia rendered as everyday life. For eight days, it is what local live music could feel like everywhere, notwithstanding how exhausting it surely is for Yo La Tengo. Not only that, but everyday life blown into magical detail.

When Alex Chilton died suddenly of a heart attack last spring, it was hard to imagine that most who had caught his extended encores with Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's didn't think back on the Hanukkah mitzvah. It is also doubtful that anyone present at Maxwell's didn't know, at that exact moment, exactly how special Chilton's appearance was, and feel the warm, amazed kind of glow that people often try to channel by invoking the far-off innocence of Christmas morning.

There probably won't be much beatnik jive talk over dinner this year, Christmas morning itself, or even Boxing Day. But that's OK, and that's what family is for. I have my faith, and, even if I don't get to celebrate all of Hanukkah this year, that (plus bootleg recordings) will last through all the other times.

For various reasons, Yo La Tengo doesn't play Hanukkah every year, either. Sometimes, they've got albums to promote. Who's to say this won't be the final one? But if they stick to their two-years-on/one-year-off schedule, their next holiday gathering will be in 2013, where Hanukkah's second night also happens to be Thanksgiving. That'll be a whole other conversation.

Jesse Jarnow's Big Day Coming:Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham Books) will be published in 2012.

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