Yo La Tengo’s Eternal Hanukkah

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Yo La Tengo's Eternal Hanukkah

“You don’t know how long it has taken us in rehearsal to pretend to be disorganized,” Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan informed the tiny audience at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, last night. Kaplan would make a great grandfather: When not creating astonishing (and astonishingly loud and wild) noise on his guitar or keyboard, he was peppering the proceedings with just that sort of neo-Borscht Belt humor, grinning gregariously, his kind face framed by an only somewhat-receded curly Jewfro. It was the second night of the band’s eight-night Hanukkah set, which they have done every year since 2001 (except last year). They are the local kids made good: Maxwell’s, which looks like just another restaurant on just another corner of just another Jersey town—which, basically, is exactly what it is—is where they played their first concert, which just so happened to have been 26 years ago yesterday (are they aware, I wonder, that yesterday also marked the 27th anniversary of Phish’s first show?).

So Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s dates back 26 years, but Yo La Tengo during Hanukkah at Maxwell’s dates back only nine. As such, the self-conscious nostalgia is practically built into the evening (nostalgia, that ultimate escapist comfort, must have been on everyone’s mind during the first Hanukkah show in December 2001), and both the Gen-X band and their mostly Gen-X fans, who were predominantly early-middle-aged and laughed at comedian Jim Gaffigan’s jokes about the gym and a high preponderance of whom sported earplugs, did not disappoint. There is no back room at Maxwell’s: Performers climbed onto the stage from the room, and disappeared into the crowd after performing. An electric menorah, correctly lit right-to-left, two candles glowing dark turquoise, sat on an amp in the back, stage right.
After a quite good opening act—a local six-piece band named Parting Gifts, some of whose members had clearly known Yo La Tengo for years—and Gaffigan, Yo La Tengo took the stage at 10:42, and immediately entered a wall of sound, bassist Jim McNew expertly laying down thick chords that allowed guitarist Ira Kaplan’s own chords to sound like a solo.

They wore ‘90s slacker apparel, and played the part. Drummer Georgia Hubley looked annoyed (though less so after her husband Kaplan’s vocals were removed from the speaker next to her right ear). McNew looked nonchalant, chewing gum during the opening numbers, quietly singing when it was his turn to sing, cracking the odd, supporting-cast joke.

Kaplan, the clear frontman and leader, is really into noise, and he throws himself into it earnestly, his expression never changing even as he is creating the musical equivalent of the Big Bang. Yo La Tengo struck me as embodying everything that makes one want to be in a successful rock and roll band—commitment to music and each other, adoration of fans, creative freedom, lack of a day job, the ability to look and indeed be really, really cool—once you boil away the part where you are actually a rock god (I suspect Kaplan would not have sex with groupies even if he didn’t happen to be married to the drummer).

The band was intimate with the audience, which could not have numbered above 250, but more, they were intimate with each other. They switched places and instruments several times. At one point, Kaplan, over at the keyboard, taped himself and put it on loop, keeping it going as he walked over to put on his guitar for the next song, as the others continued to play; when they were finally ready to go into the next song, the loop was still playing, Kaplan was over on the other side of the stage, and McNew went and shut the loop off, timing it exactly to coincide with the beginning of the next one. It was thrilling showmanship and it is why you go see live music. Trigonometry is an interesting mathematical discipline because the triangle is the only polygon where altering one side must alter every other side. The triangle is therefore the most delicate of shapes, but also the most dynamic and, potentially, the most fascinating. This was brought to mind as I watched Kaplan whale away at the keyboard with pure confidence that the rhythm section behind him would do what needed to be done, that it literally had his back.

Some of the tracks were quite tight: “Stockholm Syndrome,” the amazing center of their 1997 magnum opus I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, clocked in at three minutes. They played several tracks off their most recent album, Popular Songs, which was quite good; they played “The Weakest Part,” from 2001’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. As 11:30 passed, things picked up. They played Beating’s “Sugar Cube”—the closest thing they have ever produced to a hit single, and the basis for a beloved, quintessentially Gen-X music video—before leaping into something very noisy indeed. Kaplan screamed brief, three- or four-syllable lines into his microphone as two chords played behind him, and it took a few of these before I caught one: “I … I have made … A big decision.” They were doing the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” but unlike many covers, which are designed to draw some sort of bond between audience and band—it’s a song everyone knows equally as well, since the band itself is “new” to it—this “Heroin” was an assault, loud, and with the lyrics reassembled in a random order, like a collage, subverting the possibility of singing along. It was reminiscent, moreover, not of the album “Heroin” but of the barely controlled fury of the live versions (whose closest album equivalent is the VU masterpiece “Sister Ray”).

That was the set-closer. It was almost midnight, which is when I assumed the curfew was (I mean, it’s Thursday in Hoboken, and people live upstairs). I guessed they’d come back onstage, do a quick encore, and that would be that.

Instead, the encore was almost a second set, filled with random guests—most notably Glenn Mercer of the legendary Jersey post-punk group The Feelies. And here, the Hanukkah theme came to the fore, as there was a conscious effort to play songs by Jewish songwriters. These included Burt Bacharach, Jonathan Richman (“Roadrunner”!), Lou Reed again (this time “White Light/White Heat”), and one Mary Weiss, whom one of the guest performers, from Parting Gifts, insisted wasn’t Jewish, prompting Kaplan to respond, “Mary Weiss is Jewish. I’m not being disabused of that notion. What, she changed her name from Williams?”; the requisite Dylan cover found Hubley coming up to the microphone and, with the barest accompaniment on guitar and bass, singing “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” Nico-inflected but with a prettier voice. (Also in the encore: An improbable punk cover of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar” with the words “Rice Krispies” substituted—”How come you taste so good?/Just like a breakfast should.”)

“You guys don’t have to work tomorrow, right?” Kaplan asked as 12:30 approached. “No, it’s Hanukkah!” someone shouted from the audience. Well, eventually the thing had to end. “Thanks for coming,” Kaplan said. “Oh, and because it’s our birthday, there are cookies.” And cookies there were: almond cookies with chocolate chips, from “Giorgios,” as the familiar type of white box announced in red lettering, which must be a local Italian bakery, one that has probably been there since 1952 and maybe was used for a Sopranos location. The audience sang “Happy Birthday” in appreciation. Then some of us walked the ten Hoboken blocks south to the PATH station in the freezing late-autumn late night to catch the train back to New York City.

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