Yo La Tengo, Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ- 12/27
NYC ROLL-TOP: Are You Local?
Hoboken's indie rock answer to the Grateful Dead, Yo La Tengo began their 22nd year at Maxwell's — the corner rock club where they got their start and have never really left — playing the eight nights of Hanukah (benefit shows, all), which ran from Christmas through January 1st. Lest one think they're just a neighborhood band, though, consider their last three Manhattan-area headline performances: in March, at avant-jazz club Tonic repurposing their songs with cello and piano (another benefit); on July 4th at Battery Park, blasting Independence Day jams overlooking the Statue of Liberty at a massive free show with Stephen Malkmus; and uptown in May at Lincoln Center, where they performed their beautiful ambient scores to proto-Zissousian French underwater documentaries.
But, as always, they came home for the holidays, this time armed with Hanukah mix CD-Rs made by the band members and pals (including novelist Jonathan Lethem and underground hip-hop champ RJD2). And, as always, they were joined by numerous friends, local and otherwise, including Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisan (who rang in the new year singing "1999" as Prince), the Sun Ra Arkestra (who dusted off nuggets like "I'm Gonna Unmask the Batman" and then helped blast YLT sloppily to Saturn on the 28th); Jad Fair and Half-Japanese (who reunited to open on the 29th); and indie stand-ups warming up every gig (including the brilliantly bizarre Eugene Mirman on the 25th and is-he-intentionally-impersonating-the-dude-from-Red Meat? dry guy Todd Barry on the 26th).
Chicago post-rock mainstays Tortoise joined them on the 27th, cramping their minimalist selves onto the tiny stage, slimming down to one vibraphone and switching the five members off between that, face-to-face drumkits, bass, guitar, and keyboard. Though the vibraphone was (sadly) wheeled off for Yo La Tengo's set, members of Tortoise remained. Opening with "Bad Politics," a clusterfuck punk thrasher by the Dead C, Tortoise's John Hendon, Doug McCombs, and Jeff Parker helped the trio settle down into a set that touched on the many moods of the instrument-switching Yo La Tengo.
Throughout, Tortoise (guitarist Doug McCombs, especially) showed exactly how guest appearances should work. This was especially true on the quiet numbers from Yo La Tengo's recent albums. Parker and McCombs strengthened "Autumn Sweater" — which can sometimes sound flimsy live with only Ira Kaplan's organ over James McNew and Georgia Hubley's snare and kit — with a spine-like bass/guitar groove. On "Everyday," Herndon's drumming turned the lovely shoegazer into something rolling and hypnotic. They knew when to stop playing, too, as McCombs did, ceding the stage to the trio for "Barnaby, Hardly Working." Even without Tortoise, Yo La Tengo were more than happy to reimagine their songs. The latter number — which has already seen college rock and acoustic incarnations on the President Yo La Tengo EP and Fakebook — was here turned into a 10 minute multi-sectioned epic. The members of Tortoise knew when to return, too, Hendon guiding the song to a majestic climax.
The set was filled out by other YLT specialties: "hits" ("Sugarcube," "Tom Courtenay"), a bashfully aborted false start ("Madeline," one of the very few notable foibles of the week, which they soon recovered for a fine take), Acetone-driven garage rock ("False Alarm," "Artificial Heart"), and the obligatory set-closing jam (the perennial "I Heard You Looking"). And, for the encore, they were joined by certifiable legend Lenny Kaye, a pioneering rock critic, curator of the Nuggets box sets, and guitarist/arranger for the Patti Smith Group. "And just as a bonus," Kaplan exclaimed, after thanking Kaye for the latter two achievements, "half the songs on Nuggets were written by Jews!" and thus would provide fodder their ongoing semi-ironic Great Jewish Songwriters covers.
"It's my birthday," Kaye announced, "59 is the new 39," and then romped through four Nuggets obscurities, and one even more obscure than that. Kaplan hooked up a wah-wah pedal (price tag still dangling) to a keyboard for the Blues Project’s psychedelic "No Time Like The Right Time" ("the Jewish Beatles," he introduced them). "I’ve never sang [this] before, I’ll probably never sing it again," Kaye said before "Shock Me," the frickin’ flipside to Kaye’s super-obscure pre-Patti Smith single (recorded in 1968 as "Link Cromwell").
"Alright, Johnny, watch James for the changes," Kaplan told Herndon, who'd dashed behind the snare drum before the group closed with the grotesquely hilarious and autobiographical "Moulty," sung by the original one-handed drummer, the Barbarians’ Victor Moulton (eat that, Rick Allen, he had a hook).
"It's a nugget if you dug it," Kaye signed off as the song wound to a close. Quite true. Yo La Tengo and Tortoise presented some heady nuggets, indeed.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com