Odd the relationships we develop over music, eh? I have a business acquaintance on the West Coast with whom I don’t share much but a work connection and a yen for Yo La Tengo. The end of the year always brings an opportunity to indulge his geographic jealousy, seeing as my home puts me within a stone’s throw (or at least a drive through the Holland Tunnel) away from Yo La Tengo’s Hoboken hometown, and his puts him several thousand more. Thus, any Yo La Tengo show in the New York City area—be it one of the band’s occasional one-offs or another adventure with their Eight Nights of Hanukkah celebration at Maxwell’s—prompts a similar follow up: “Were they in squall mode, or lounge mode?”
An oversimplification, of course, but I get the inference: When Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew are hitting on all cylinders, a Yo La Tengo show can traverse the calmest, most placid expanses of folk and pop to the gnarliest, loudest, artiest guitar damage breakdowns in the span of a few minutes.
This is a group that’s long been unafraid to cross any supposed chasms between the strands of indie rock, vintage pop, and everything even semi-related, and for that alone, Yo La Tengo the band is an esoterica hound’s wet dream. All those covers, all those random shows, all those official releases and bootlegs and side projects and influences and curiosities and blankets of brilliance occasionally shot through with pretentiousness for which you forgive them if only because they keep things so unfailingly interesting in an age of indie rock homogenization. (Forgive the grandiosity—they inspire such flights.)
Yo La Tengo at Hanukkah—selling out venerable, tight-packed Maxwell’s and bringing its A-game, along with its gift for inspired mischief, for eight straight adventures—mutates that notion into a bigger, badder, more boisterous version of itself. Under “normal” circumstances, a setlist and a quick description will probably do the job. But no de-brief of any Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show is complete without a detailed rundown of guests, who the opening musical act and opening comedy act are, who created the night’s take-home mix CD, and what charity the proceeds are going to.
Therefore, Yo La Tengo, Hanukkah 2008, Night One, Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ, the Twitter version: Janet Weiss for the whole show on second drumkit, Spoon’s Britt Daniel for the encore, opening acts Oneida (music) and Paul F. Tompkins (comedy), Aesop Rock behind the music collection, and all proceeds to the Jubilee Center. Thank you and good night and l’chaim.
Sometimes it’s that simple, sometimes it isn’t, and if the opening night blast-off had a much more forceful impact than the unsteady warm-up some Yo La Tengo freaks dismissed it as, it wasn’t the highlight of the run, either. But the lead off cover—Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Seven Day Weekend” reworked into “Eight Day Weekend”, and something of a YLT Hanukkah standard at this point—felt like the tolling of the bell, re-juicing the energy in Maxwell’s and blasting off the holiday week with turbulent, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll.
Seeing former Sleater-Kinney and current Jicks skinswoman Weiss was a treat from before the word “go,” and her tandem work with Hubley added an extra layer of clatter and crispness to everything YLT selected. Classic YLT playbook chestnuts like “Sugarcube” and “Tom Courtenay” had the comfort of familiarity; obscurities fiends got some nice manna (New Wave Hot Dog‘s “House Fall Down”, part way through the show); a fleeter version of “Today is the Day” hurtled on by; and a nasal passage-clearing, guitar summit breakdown of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” assured no one would go home with hearing intact. (Even Weiss got in on that one, her and Hubley both strapping on guitars.) Whatever mood they’re in, Yo La Tengo remain perceptibly fearless. “Don’t be scared!” someone yelled to Georgia before she came up to sing. “Oh, I’m not scared,” Hubley replied, with a laser beam look that would have said it all just fine.
How ‘bout the peripheral attractions? Tompkins’ opening comedy routine wore out its welcome by about 10 minutes, although a closing stretch of material about his deceased mother struck a note-perfect balance between bittersweetness, midnight-black humor, and profundity. His return later, to sing “Ring of Fire” at the start of the encore, felt unnecessary (though couldn’t have been skipped, per YLT Hanukkah tradition). Spoon’s Britt Daniel, seen maneuvering in the crowd and setting up his mic earlier in the evening, hammed things up good and proper during his encore appearance that consisted entirely of covers—sort of flatly on “Public Image” and “Mother and Child Reunion”, but tastily on “This Guy’s In Love With You” and especially, “Me and Mr. Jones”. Yo La Tengo wears Amy Winehouse well, in its own admirable way. It wears a lot of things well, in a lot of admirable ways.
It must be said at this juncture, however, that despite the best efforts of Ira, Georgia, James and their talented invitees, opening act Oneida owned the evening from a musical—from a rock me, please—standpoint.
The Brooklyn group’s frenetic approach is a sensible parallel to the headliners’ own: Folk-rock elements stacked high with noisy jangle, dissonant jazz, stomping chords, and general restlessness—a battle, as one of my PopMatters colleagues once wrote, between precision and total chaos. They were game to the holiday theme, too, serving up an ace original called “Supersonic Santa”, Mott the Hoople’s strangely immortal “Death May Be Your Santa Claus”, and a closing “Hanukkah, Bitch” that laid whatever cards were still held back face up on the gaming table. On opening night, Yo La Tengo were a picture of comfort and familiarity—ah, it’s that time of year, we’re back with this pantheon-worthy band, and they’ve brought the goods, as per usual. Oneida, on the other hand, blew the place up.