Consider me way late to the Yo La Tengo love parade. Shame, but here I am. Upon learning the band would be reviving, after a five-year hiatus, its famed Hanukkah shows this December, I listened to a number of their 14 “subtly terrific” full-length albums while driving for hours along Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania, a place nobody told me was so darn gorgeous. Thanks to these indie Gods from Hoboken, New Jersey, time flew by; music is nothing if not to be discovered.
The band’s Hanukkah shows, I’ve deduced, are kind of a big deal, considering the band’s cult following. Yo La Tengo was formed in 1984 and has had its core in place since 1992. In 2001, Yo La Tengo booked its first set of Hanukkah concerts—an eight-show stint, naturally—at their “home club” of Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, whose owners closed it down in 2013. Yo La Tengo’s first show took place there. Proceeds, for years, went to the Jersey Relief Fund, writes Brooklyn Vegan. This year, Yo La Tengo will take their talents to Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan; tickets are $40 a pop.
A month before the first string of shows back in 2001, Rolling Stone essentially asked Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo’s lead singer, if his Judaism had any semblance of inspiration on the Hanukkah theme. “I was not Bar Mitzvahed or anything,” Kaplan said. “I am not remotely religious, close to anti- in fact. Even still, I consider myself Jewish, even though I’m not a religious Jew, and I like the idea of participating in the holidays on my own terms. Christmas parties just seem so overdone. I wanted to do something a little different but still seasonal.” Kaplan’s wife, Georgia Hubley, who is Yo La Tengo’s drummer, is also Jewish. The band’s biographer described them thus to The Awl, in 2012: “…Georgia and Ira are both late baby-boomers, literal children of the ’60s, both from left-leaning, slightly upper middle-class families, Jewish or partly Jewish, but almost completely secular in both cases.” (James McNew, on bass and vocals, is not Jewish.)
Their Hanukkah shows typically feature a number of guests, apparently turning into something of a variety show. Nobody quite knows who’s going to show up. Past performers: David Cross in a full-on Hasidic ensemble, Amy Poehler, Real Estate, Andrew Bird, David Byrne, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswald, The Feelies, and so many more. And every year, as Marc Tracy wrote after their 2010 show at Maxwell’s, is a “signature roller-coaster of brilliance.”
Yo La Tengo’s melodies, as Hadara Graubart wrote after their 2008 show, “grapple 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.” Their music is “frenetic, edgy—a little too close for comfort. And yet there is great joy in the chaos.”
Here is Yo La Tengos’ full Hanukkah show from 2002, just its second ever, followed by a few of their hits you may just recognize.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.