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Yo La Tengo: Hanukkah Shows
Better than: Christmas.
Hanukkah doesn’t technically end until sundown Wednesday, but Yo La Tengo unplugged their electric menorah at Maxwell’s last night, just after a post-midnight sign-off where Ira Kaplan’s mother sang “My Little Corner of the World.” Despite the junior Kaplan’s recent (unspecified) health scare that left him confined to a bar stool for this year’s series of Hanukkah shows, his band’s sets seemed more expansive than ever, spilling between relaxed arrangements, deeper-than-usual noise jams (bassist James McNew has been moonlighting with Kid Millions’ Man Forever), Georgia Hubley ballads, indie pop, and covers—and Bobcat Goldthwait was there, too.
This year, the band played some 134 different songs over Hanukkah; the set lists included the usual tour through its 27-year back catalogue, tunes by great Jewish songwriters (number of Velvet Underground songs this year: somehow only 3), and appearances by ex-YLT roommates (Maxwell’s co-owner Todd Abramson on “The Aba Dabba Do Dance”; WFMU DJ Gaylord Fields growling through “My Little Red Book”). But the stunt guitarists—recruited quickly as back-up for Kaplan—were this year’s main attraction. Though Superchunk founder Mac McCaughan took most of the leads on opening night, it was soon obvious that the extra players were there to jam, not substitute for Kaplan, who seemed mostly at full strength, minus the occasional charge at the amp.
Each player brought the band into new moods, from elegant countrypolitan grandeur (via former YLT guitarist Dave Schramm and Tom Waits/Johnny Cash/Justin Timberlake/Beck technician Smokey Hormel) to rampaging alt leads (by the likes of Antietam’s Tara Key and Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo). All played loud and quiet and in between to varying degrees of great success.
One dream team took the stage on the third night, when Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley played alongside one-time Run On guitarist (and avant-statesman) Alan Licht. Though exploding through a white-hot pairing of SY’s “Mote” and YLT’s “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” Ranaldo and company were put to equally good atmospheric use on a trio of quiet songs, including Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” (sung by Georgia), “The Last Days of Disco,” and a quiet new arrangement of Painful‘s “Decora.” In fact, new arrangements peppered the setlists, the band leaving the Acetone and Farfisa organs at their practice space and building new plans around both the 12-string acoustic and the guests. That Yo La Tengo punctuated the mega-“Hatchet” with John Cameron Mitchell belting an encore rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy”—a new addition to the band’s Jewish songbook—was a neon exclamation point nestled inside a week full of surprises that also included far fewer airings of YLT warhorses like “Autumn Sweater,” “Tom Courtenay,” “Drug Test,” and “Mr. Tough.”
There were reunions and resurrections, including the much-buzzed-about first Pussy Galore show since the ’80s (opener: “You Look Like Like A Jew”) as well as the less-buzzed but still awesome first gig in who-knows-how-long by The Trypes, baroque psychedelicists of The Feelies’ family tree. Chris Elliott came back from the dead to do a too-short stand-up appearance that consisted mostly of him singing Neil Diamond’s “I Am, I Said” to a chair while backed by Yo La Tengo; Bobcat Goldthwait came back from the dead to do an oddly warm, side-splitting set that would’ve been just as funny had he just screamed his way through it. Kurt Vile and the Violators opened one show; McNew’s Dump opened the December 25 show, and covered Prince’s “Another Lonely Christmas.”
Yo La Tengo did not play “Nuclear War.” They did play eight songs backing Neil Innes of Monty Python/Rutles/Bonzo Dog Band fame, who returned the favor by joining them for a long, bottomless “Story of Yo La Tango.” They played on Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day. They gave lots money to charity (Pathfinders International and the Letha-Rodman Melchior Fund, as well as six others), and sold CD-R mixes by Tim and Eric, the Tall Dwarfs’ Chris Knox, and others.
It was a tiring eight nights. Only two-and-a-half months ’til spring training.
Critical bias: Missed three of this year’s shows, caught almost all of the previous 40. Wrote a book about Yo La Tengo, out in June.
Overheard: “Are you a Violator?” “No, but I should be.”
Setlists: They’re all here.