Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah Shows: What’s Happened So Far


crappy photo of Mark Arm and 2/3 YLT, last Tuesday night by Cami D

Yo La Tengo Hanukkah Shows at Maxwell’s

All the Covers, the Special Guests, the Mix CDs. . . So far.

by Jesse Jarnow

It is maybe no accident how perfectly Yo La Tengo’s gear tucks into the dimensions of the Maxwell’s stage, their vintage organs neatly on one side, Ira Kaplan’s amps leveled symmetrically by a pair of scaled drum cases on the other, and snug into the stage’s corner. Besides the fact that the band has been playing the Hoboken back room for 23 years, including their very first gig, it speaks volumes (literally) about an important dividing line: what happens when drums get amplified. The difference between hearing drums through club speakers and, for the most part, with one’s own ears is enormous. For this reason, Yo La Tengo has sometimes sounded diminished in larger venues, and at their absolute, natural best at the idyllic Hoboken nook. With Georgia Hubley’s idiosyncratically personable rhythms at its center—sometimes anchoring a squall, sometimes a murmuring heartbeat—the music is exactly as it should be in the modest space. The annual-when-they-wannabe Hanukkah charity shows are a sanctuary for this notion, the early ’90s moment when indie rock was indie rock, and you didn’t need a gimmick besides, say, a cheap plastic menorah, $10 benefit mix discs, and a bunch of unannounced guests.

Tuesday, December 4th
Opener: Versus
Comedian: Jon Glaser and Jon Benjamin as “Dave Franz” and “Dave Farina”
Covers: Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” (sung as “Hanukkah Time”), the Velvet Underground’s “She’s My Best Friend,” The Clash’s “What’s My Name,” the Circle Jerks’ “Operation,” Richard Meltzer’s “Too Animalistic,” Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” Fred Ebb and John Kander’s “Cabaret.”
Mix: Matmos
Special guests: James Baluyut (Versus), Jon Glaser (as “Kim,” witness relocation program member), Mark Arm (Mudhoney), horn section.
Charity: Community Food Bank of New Jersey

If the ten patient minutes a roadie spends on the menorah-check portends anything, Yo La Tengo don’t notice. Taking the stage with a horn section and decked in Arkestral Mardi Gras robes, they chuck Hanukkah gelt and beads at the crowd and deliver Al Johnson’s Nawlins’ staple “Carnival Time,” repurposed for their own Semitic needs. The brass stays for “Mr. Tough” (with a verse reference to Maxwell’s buddy Todd-O-Phonic Todd Abramson), one of four songs from 2006’s I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass to make their Hoboken debut. Songs like “Watch Out For Me, Ronnie” —with a dense three-part vocal atop an overdriven modular stomp—finally make sense in the band’s natural habitat. On “The Story of Yo La Tango,” Ira Kaplan leads the trio through a slow, orchestrated build, cuing a penultimate burst with a Rock Jump earned only after many years (or perhaps just in the “Sugarcube” video). Mudhoney’s Mark Arm adds the usual “seasonal numbers”: tunes penned by, popularized by, or at least having some tenuous connection to a “great Jewish songwriter.” Like David Lee Roth. Or Richard Meltzer.

Wednesday, December 5th
Opener: The Clean
Comedian: John Oliver of the Daily Show.
Covers: Gary “U.S.” Bond’s “Seven Day Weekend” (sung as “Eight Day Weekend”), This Diamond Ring (Gary Lewis), The Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” (instrumental and sung), T-Rex’s “Easy Action,” David Kilgour’s “Seemingly Stranded,” The Dovers’ “What Am I Going To Do?”
Mix: David Cross
Special guests: The Clean, Joe Puleo, Mac McCaughan (Superchunk).
Charity: The Stone

The ways in which Yo La Tengo employ veteran New Zealand punks The Clean: 1.) Using drummer Hamish Kilgour on a mini-kit to bolster a brilliant set-closing segue from “Big Day Coming” into the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” which melts into Live/Dead-like feedback and eventually reverses back into Brian Wilson’s pop innocence. 2.) By dispensing with them for a second to play a lovely surf instrumental of “Blitzkrieg Bop” as a prelude to the encore. 3.) For a stumbling tear through of T-Rex’s “Easy Action.” 4.) To rescue a potential drunken crash-up by springing “Seemingly Stranded” on David Kilgour, from his 1997 album with the Heavy Eights. (“Awesome,” Kaplan says, relieved, when Kilgour acquiesces, bringing up Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, the band clearly having rehearsed the song anyway. “David, you probably have some Jewish blood in you somewhere, so this will technically be a Jewish song,” Kaplan notes. “Oh, I’m Jewish,” Kilgour replies.) 5.) To sustain the moment with a cover of the Dovers’ “What Am I Going to Do?” 6.) To tie it up by having Clean bassist Bob Scott reprise “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the crash-up still forestalled.

Thursday, December 6th
Opener: The dB’s
Comedian: Eugene Mirman
Covers: Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” Beat Happening’s “Cast A Shadow,” The Yardbird’s “Heart Full of Soul,” Will Rigby’s “The Question,” Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man,” KISS’s “Hard Luck Woman”
Mix: Todd-O-Phonic Todd Abramson
Special guests: the dB’s, Jim James (My Morning Jacket)
Charity: Day One

Though Yo La Tengo’s tastes are many and varied—beginning the third night, for example, with Saturanian jazzman Sun Ra and ending with Satyrnian freak Gene Simmons—their friends tend to be of a certain generation. Totally hip, to be sure, but infrequently au courant, this year’s Hanukkah openers are frequently seminal bands in sporadic post-parenthood reunion-mode, including Versus, the Clean, and the dB’s. The latter are particularly entwined with Yo La Tengo history, including bassist Gene Holder (who produced 1990’s Fakebook) and guitarist Chris Stamey (who YLT backed on 2004’s A Question of Temperature). They reach thick, wild mercury blast-off on Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and a moment of tenderness with Will Rigby’s “The Question,” once released on Kaplan’s Egon Records. As if to respond to any rising criticism of nostalgia, the band brings up moustache-of-the-moment Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, for a trio of sweetly overemoted numbers. “Bye, bye my baby,” James sings on KISS’s “Hard Luck Woman.” “Ooh, baby don’t cry,” he sings, and leaves, exiting the wingless club through the crowd, just before the show finishes and disperses into the Hoboken night.

Friday, December 7th
Opener: Endless Boogie
Comedian: Todd Barry
Covers: The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and “Heroin” (Roky Erickson arrangement), Alex Chilton’s “Take Care” and “Hey Little Child,” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Let Me Get Close To You,” The Kinks’ “‘Til the End of the Day,” Jerry Ragovoy’s “Time Is On My Side,” T-Rex’s “Jeepster”
Mix: James McNew
Special guests: Jesper Eklow (Endless Boogie), Alex Chilton, Tammy Lynn Michaels
Charity: Ponderosa Stomp

“Hi,” Kaplan says to Alex Chilton, who has arrived for his guest slot a few minutes late. Already the night has hinted at looming disaster, at least in the sense that the menorah stopped working, affixed with an “out of order” sign (though the right number of candle-bulbs). “The Weakest Part” receives its second airing in two days, one of very few repeats, and Beat Your Ass‘s “I Should Have Known Better” appears for the first time. Like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo’s songs often seem to grow from their tattered instruments, like the droning organ on the latter number. This makes the addition on recent tours of a large piano synth to the band’s regular gear a bit disconcerting. (Visually, too: it doesn’t fit so-snugly with the rest of the set-up at Maxwell’s.) Disaster never comes, though, just a modestly demeanored legend with a small satchel, like an elusive score in the band’s obsessive record geek collection of guests. They bond in music, Chilton’s mouth coiling into a snarl on shared faves by the Velvets, T-Rex, the Kinks, and Chilton himself.

Alex Chilton on Saturday.

Saturday, December 8th
Opener: Dew-Claw
Monologist: Sarah Vowell
Comedian: Amy Poehler of Saturday Night Live (as Ira’s aunt)
Covers: Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Sometime in the Morning” and “Let Me Get Close To You,” Blue Oyster Cult’s “E.T.I.,” the Bell-Notes’ “I’ve Had It,” Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song,” the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” T-Rex’s’ “Baby Strange,” Alex Chilton’s “Hey Little Child,” the Modern Lovers’ “Goverment Center.”
Mix: Georgia Hubley.
Special guests: Dave Rick (Dew-Claw/ex-YLT), Stephen Hunking (Dew-Claw), Alex Chilton
Charity: 826NYC and Global Kids

“We thought we had enough power for eight days,” Kaplan apologizes about the still-broken menorah. “Turns out it was only four-and-a-half.” It is typically diminutive YLT humor, not unrelated to lyric about “hiding in a crowded party” on “Mr. Tough” (with its third Todd-O-Phonic airing) and how “we try with all our might” in “Story of Yo La Tango” (which gets its second). The band plays a trio of impeccably quiet numbers (“Tears Are In Your Eyes,” “Season of the Shark,” and “Don’t Say A Word”) early in the set and later balances it with sequenced transitions between a trio of building rockers (“Mr. Tough,” “Big Day Coming,” and “Watch Out For Me, Ronnie”). “You have a beautiful voice,” Alex Chilton tells James McNew when he arrives on stage for a surprise second night with the trio, shooting a quick smile at the bassist during McNew’s closed-eye falsetto on Brenton Wood’s “Oogum Boogum Song.”

Sunday, December 9th
Opener: Redd Kross
Comedian: Heather Lawless
Covers: The Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week,” Alex Chilton’s “September Gurls,” The Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Velvet Underground’s “Who Loves the Sun,” Bob Hillard & Lee Pockriss’s “My Little Corner of the World.”
Mix: Eye
Special guests: Redd Kross, Joe Puleo, Ira’s mom
Charity: Clean Ocean Action (of NJ)

And sometimes there have to be straight-up Yo La Tengo shows. “Eight Days A Week,” a Hanukah staple, makes its first appearance and a replacement menorah arrives. Its broken kin, still with the out-of-order sign, sits just behind it on an amp to the left of Hubley’s drums. The band make it nearly all the way through the set before a guest arrives, and even then he comes and goes—adding stone-faced organ to “I Heard You Looking”—with nary an acknowledgment. “Anybody see the I’m Not There movie?” asks Kaplan. “We had a couple of songs in it. We’re not gonna do one, I’m just asking.” It’s that kind of night. Redd Kross take over the frontline during the encore, the songs—the Velvets’ “Who Loves the Sun,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop”—making use of Robert Hecker, Jeff and Steve McDonald’s harmonies, like an alt-rock CSN. But Roy McDonald’s drumming overpowers Hubley’s, Robert Hecker’s harsh guitar rubbing out Kaplan. But then Ira’s mom arrives and sings an off-key rendition of “My Little Corner of the World” that’s kinda impossible to hate. It’s that’s kind of night, too.

Update*: Now with the Final 2!

Monday, December 10th
Opener: The New Pornographers (minus Neko Case and Dan Bejar)
Comedian: Andy Blitz as “Peanut Butter”
Covers: Black Flag’s “TV Party” (as “Dreidel Party”), NRBQ’s “Magnet,” George McCrea’s “You Can Have It All,” Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby,” the Flamin’ Groovies’ “High Flyin’ Baby,” “Teenage Head,” “Slow Death.”
Mix: Yoshitomo Nara
Special guests: John Wurster (Superchunk), Bruce Bennett (the A-Bones), Roy Loney (Flamin’ Groovies)
Charity: African Services Committee

“I understand Led Zeppelin’s menorah totally sucks,” says Kaplan, in a brief pep talk after the replacement fails. The situation does not dim the band’s desire to rock, however, and they open with Black Flag’s immortal “Dreidel Party.” A pair of elegiac set-pieces from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out—”Everyday” and “Saturday,” the latter accompanied by Hubley’s delay pedal glitch textures and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster—provide counterweights to the fairly literal “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss.” There, because her husband (already on his knees) clearly needed help making noise, Hubley emerges from the drums mid-jam to pick up a guitar and add another layer of feedback. “You Can Have It All,” in a not particularly successful Sun Ra chant rearrangement, is a quizzical respite before the arrival of band chum Bruce Bennett and Flamin’ Groovies singer Roy Loney. Bennett pogos his guitar strap off halfway through Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby,” is helped back into it, and resumes pogoing. Shortly, after Loney has sung of a “teenage sex machine” and being “a child of atom bombs and rotten air and Vietnams,” the Nuggetsy singer ends up on the stage floor, spazzing and twisting. Kinda like a dreidel.

Tuesday, December 11th
Opener: Times New Viking
Comedian: David Cross as Ira’s rabbi
Covers: Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ “Seven Day Weekend” (sung as “Eight Day Weekend”), Mel Brooks’ “Love Power,” The Crossfires’ “One Potato, Two Potato,” Michael Brown’s “Love Song in the Night,” T-Rex’s “Metal Guru,” The Turtles’ “She’d Rather Be With Me.”
Mix: Ira Kaplan
Special guests: Beth Murphy (Times New Viking), Howard Kaylan (The Turtles/Flo & Eddie)
Charity: Fortune Society/Northeast Council of the Wrongfully Convicted

The gig the nerds awaited. After David Cross opens in Hasidic rabbi gear, the band bookend the set with two of their headiest jams: “Night Falls on Hoboken” (which begins as a pastoral hum and disintegrates imperceptibly) and “Blue Line Swinger” (which tumbles in similar slow motion from fills into a fully realized beat and a formal accleration towards mayhem). In between there are stunning, semi-a capella Beach Boys harmonies on an ultra-rare tune (“Paul Is Dead”), and an aching rearrangement of an old favorite due to a malfunctioning Farfisa (“Autumn Sweater”). And, after, there is a song from The Producers, “Love Power,” at the end of which Kaplan freaks out. “The candles fill me up with so much love power!” he screams/explains, of the fully armed and operational menorah, eight bulbs somewhat miraculously burning bright. The Turtles’ still charismatic Howard Kaylan comes out, too, and it’s only a meek bummer that they dust off footnotes like the Crossfires’ “One Potato, Sweet Potato” (included on Todd-O-Phonic’s mix earlier in the week) instead of the obvious, big harmonied “Happy Together.” Because it sure looks like Yo La Tengo are.

No idea how, but yes, Jesse Jarnow has been there every night.

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