photo by Liz Clayton Dawn Sutter Madell, via the Yo La Tengo diary
Eight shows, eight-and-a-half comedians, eight charities, eight mix CDs, 24 sit-ins, and three Velvet Underground covers later, Yo La Tengo brought another Hanukkah at Maxwell’s to a close. But, as befits a band named in reference to the ’62 Mets, who lost 120 games and still found popularity, stats don’t really get at what happens in the cozy Hoboken back room during the trio’s annual holiday residency.
The above numbers include, for example, post-Lou VU member and Boom Boom Band leader Willie Alexander, who opened and joined up for a few songs on night seven (though no Velvets’ tunes). But they don’t account for the ear-splitting volume that makes the 24-year old trio one of the only groups even allowed to cover the VU these days. Nor do they quite convey the distinctly Semitic smell of Chinese food wafting through a dining room on Christmas Eve (night four), when Maxwell’s closed their kitchen and offered delivery from elsewhere.
The big names made the trek to Hoboken, too, to do “seasonal” tunes by the great Jewish songwriters. (“Great” and “Jewish” sometimes being fuzzy terms.) This year’s all-stars included Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt (doing a semi-disastrous duet with Ira Kaplan on Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” night two), David Cross (sloppily channeling Lulu, night seven), Spoon’s Britt Daniel (Amy Winehouse, night one), and Saturday Night Live‘s Fred Armisen, night five, who delivered a five-minute in-character bit before joining the band on drums for one of the more surprising and raging set-of-the-week contenders.
Generally, like the Hoboken-dwelling music dorks they are, the Yellow Tangoes (so dubbed by Jon Wurster on night six) got their kicks in subtler, more tucked-off corners. Between covers of Brill Building pop (four tunes), punk (Richard Hell, night six), post-punk (Public Image Ltd., night one), free jazz-inspired meltdowns (“Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” night seven), whispered ballads (“You’ve Got A Friend,” sung gorgeously by Georgia Hubley, night eight), and as accompanists for opening acts (James McNew, reading charts with Lambchop, night six; Kaplan on organ with Antietam, night five), the band proved themselves as nuanced as any of the top shelfers who appeared alongside them.
For five of the eight nights, the band included guests for all or most of their set, unfolding a songbook that sometimes seemed to include not only their quarter-century old repertoire, but an entire lineage of indie pop culture. Smokey Hormel (sessionman for Beck, Tom Waits, Justin Timberlake) remained cucumber cool swinging on “Center of Gravity.” William Tyler of Lambchop, meanwhile, painted reverby volume swells (night six), and former Dylan sideman David Mansfield contributed elegance on pedal steel (“Cone of Silence”) and a totally Velvet violin jam on “Big Day Coming” (night seven).
“Cyril, you’d agree that it’s the most beautiful time of the year, right?” Kaplan asked Flamin’ Grooves guitarist Cyril Jordan, who joined for encores on nights five and six.
“Thank God for that,” Jordan confirmed, “’cause the rest of the year sucks.”
While one can crunch plenty more data about the gigs–songs debuted from YLT’s recent soundtrack work (one, “Leaving Home,” from Old Joy, night three), numbers performed by the Monkees (two, penned by Neil Diamond and Carole King, respectively), celebs who made mixes (one, Zooey Deschanel, night eight)–Jordan got at, perhaps, the only stat that really rings true. That is, the number of days of the year that aren’t Hanukkah: 357.–Jesse Jarnow