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Winter A-Go-Go

Merry-making at a Yo La Tengo Hanukkah concert

December 26, 2008

The members of rock trio Yo La Tengo have long inspired an embarrassingly pretentious-seeming ardor in their devotees; but if you like them, it’s hard to resist using words like “art” to describe them—without air quotes for a change.

Since 2001, almost every year, the band has performed a concert each night of Hanukkah at Maxwell’s in their hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey. In such an intimate space, their sound comes close to replicating the headphone or car stereo experience, via which I would venture to guess a large portion of the band’s fan-base first fell in love with Yo La Tengo’s music. This circumstance, unusual for such a cult act, combined with the special-occasion appeal of the holiday theme, makes these shows momentous events.

According to guitarist/keyboardist Ira Kaplan’s official blog, on the first night of this year’s series, opening band Oneida performed a song called “Hanukkah, Bitch,” comedian Paul F. Tompkins performed Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” with an added verse telling the story of the holiday, and Yo La Tengo themselves performed one of their seasonal staples, “Eight Day Weekend.” Naturally, I assumed that if I went to the Christmas eve performance, I was sure to get even more creative takes on the festival of lights. As it turned out, I mostly heard more uses of the word “Jewy than I ever thought possible. But in a way, it was a perfect tribute to the Jewish holiday, which, on this night of nights for Christians, bubbled along below the radar.

I got to Maxwell’s a little before the show, with a friend who was hoping quixotically to find carrot cake—instead we found take-out menus on every table from Istana Chinese and Japanese Cuisine. We had already eaten our official Asian food for the evening, but we sat down to get a drink. Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo’s drummer, turned around from her seat at the next table with the rest of the band to retrieve a box of seaweed salad sitting on one of the chairs at our table, smiling beatifically. Starstruck, I managed to ask if they’d done shows on Christmas in the past, and Kaplan answered that they’d done Christmas day, but that this would be their first Christmas eve show. “This one will probably be more Jewy than usual,” he said.

In fact, opener Jennifer O’Connor, a breathy, soulful folk singer whose set was enjoyable but kind of sounded like one long song, did say the word “Jewy” once, but the closest thing she came to following through was “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” by Carole King. Comedian Jon Benjamin performed routines on the hilarious topics of heartburn medication, abortion, and Orthodox Jews’ prolific birthrates, and read a letter from comedian Jon Glaser, who had also been scheduled to perform but canceled, which ended with “at least I’m not listening to ironic comedians or shitty versions of songs that Jews wrote.”

A guy with a Hebrew phrase tattooed on his arm spent about 20 minutes trying to fix a leak in the roof above the stage while “Lose Yourself” by Eminem played on a continuous loop, prompting Kaplan to remark, “It’s only Night Four and things are already falling apart—it’s a Hanukkah disaster.” When the band began finally began playing, conjuring the first strains of ghostly ambient sound, I felt a surge of relief.

Perhaps what was most “Jewy” about Yo La Tengo’s concert was the fact that their songs are essentially anti-Christmas carols: frenetic, edgy—a little too close for comfort. And yet there is great joy in the chaos: the fidgety arousal of half-triggered memories, the compulsion to move your body; the tortuous pleasure of indulging an addiction, of having your brain scrambled. People tend to think of Yo La Tengo for their cutesy They Might Be Giants-esque gimmick—the fact that Kaplan and Hubley are married and use their relationship as material; their proclivity toward quirky, childlike lullabies such as “Little Eyes” and “The Season of the Shark.” But every one of their songs grapples with darkness, with depression, with the nagging pain of loving someone but realizing again and again that you can’t ever really know them; the feeling of standing just outside of something simple and perfect, forever unable to reach it.

A highlight of the set was “Mr. Tough,” a song I once described as an “insipid pep-talk from a band that traffics in emotional complexity.” Having smacked some sense into myself since then, I now realize that Yo La Tengo doesn’t so much traffic in emotional complexity as sonic intensity—the emotions are a side-effect—and that the song, far from being a parodic novelty, is a gleefully snotty taunt directed toward their, and their fans’, mopier selves: “Hey Mr. Tough, don’t you think you’ve suffered enough?/Pretend everything will be alright.”

In this warmed atmosphere, the next two songs—the rarely-played gems “Tiny Birds,” an intimate whispered secret sung by bassist James McNew, and “Paul is Dead,” an equally personal and miniature meditation on self-awareness—felt like the kind of Hanukkah gifts that, as a child, I particularly treasured: small trinkets, thoughtfully chosen by a favorite teacher or close friend. Perennial crowd-pleaser “Autumn Sweater,” a song about the fetishistic worship of a love-object and the desire to stop time, in its post-punk, Tim Burton-esque, organ-heavy splendor, was more like a longed-for Eighth Night whopper gift—the CD player, the Barbie corvette. The climax of the show was a 30-minute-long, feedback choked, heavily distorted, religious ordeal of a jam.

Normally, I relish a musical experience that runs me through an emotional mill—in fact, I depend on such adventures for a sensation akin to religious fulfillment. But maybe because I expected this show to be something like a secret club meeting (“The Order of the Christmas Non-Celebrants” perhaps?), I found myself more exhausted than usual by Yo La Tengo’s signature roller-coaster of brilliance. Like the story of the Hanukkah oil, at times the moments of catharsis felt like short consolation for the trials that preceded them.

As the show wound down and people began shouting out requests, Kaplan said, “I think we’ll do something a little Jewier.” And then the band played “Dream On,” by Carole King. Their big finish came in the form of “Rock n’ Roll Santa.” Perhaps, as I heard another audience member remark on the way out, “There’s no true Jewiness on Christmas, anyway.”

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.

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