After celebrating Christmas the night before, Saturday was an opportunity to commemorate Hanukkah at Yo La Tengo's almost-annual bash at Maxwell's. I had been to Hoboken a few times before and, while Jersey has that reputation, I think Hoboken is a vibrant town with a neat restaurant district. Alas, Maxwell's was a bit of a hike from the PATH station, particularly in the blistering cold, but I arrived just as it was filling up. The venue places its bar and restaurant up front, with a pretty tiny concert space in the back. It can get pretty cozy, but it was a treat to catch such a renowned band in an intimate space.
One of the great mysteries of Yo La Tengo's eight-night residence is the identity of the guests. (BrooklynVegan has been keeping score.) The anticipation only grew when Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, who played M.C. throughout the night, came on stage to introduce the first performer. I'm ashamed to admit that I had no idea who Syl Johnson was, but any ignorance was soon irrelevant, as he launched into a brilliant, soulful performance with a full band. What a voice!
Listening now to his records - which date back to the 1950s - I'm struck by how great he still sounds, at age 74. Moreover, he threw in guitar and harmonica, along with some effortlessly hilarious banter, and his band was awesome as well, particularly the full brass section, which included a trumpet, tenor saxophone and horn. Amazing.
Johnson has a boxed set out that mines his many hits and the Times has a profile of him.
Next, comedian Jon Glaser, as "Rabbi Attitude," had a mercifully brief monologue about putting his cat to sleep, finding out it could talk and then admitting it was all a lie and cursing out the crowd. Quite a few people thought it was funny, but I'd rather get my laughs elsewhere.
Finally, it was time for Yo La Tengo. The set was comparable to their CMJ show at Brooklyn Bowl, as an eclectic mix that spanned everything from gargantuan, feedback-drenched epics to sharp, taut indie pop to lovely acoustic meanderings. Again, Ira Kaplan, Gorgia Hubley and James McNew's vocals were all on full display, weaving together on the fuller arrangements and each member singing lead on a few tracks each.
It was a bit of a family affair, with McNew dedicating a song to his wife, who was celebrating her birthday, and Kaplan inviting his mother on stage to close the set. During the encore, the band also enlisted Peter Wolf, an old school Massachusetts rocker who was in the J. Geils Band and Glaser, who hid his face in a mask.
As the band said themselves, despite growing up in relatively secular households, they've really transformed Hanukkah, and the holidays as a whole, into a special time. Going beyond the boldfaced names of the guests and the songs that were played. Yo La Tengo's Hanukkah marathons are a reminder of how generations can come together and share a moment. And that, at the risk of getting sentimental, is the greatest gift of all.
Update: The Voice is reporting Wednesday night's guest is the National.
Rest of the photos after the jump.
(Actually the setlist from the night before)
Ira Kaplan and Jon "Rabbi Attitude" Glaser