Here’s the bad news: Maxwell’s, the legendary Hoboken club, has shut down, and with it, apparently, went Yo La Tengo‘s legendary “Eight Nights of Hanukkah” residencies. Regrettably — shamefully — I never made it to one. And now for the good: that tradition has been replaced — perhaps only fleetingly — by another: a four-night residency of holiday shows at The Bell House in Gowanus. (Complain about the location and you’ll be swiftly reminded that you’re not being asked to schlep to Hoboken.) On Sunday night, I made it.
Rather than retreading the Hanukkah show format — two opening acts, one musical and one of the stand-up variety — Yo La Tengo performed two full sets of their own, an indulgence the trio has earned after a remarkably busy year that began with the release of Fade, their 13th album. Entirely acoustic, the first set found Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew seated in front of wooden tree-shaped cutouts, cradling acoustic guitars (or percussive brushes, for Hubley) and crooning out three-part harmonies.
Conventionally, you can glean a crowd’s approval of a live act by its loudness — cheering, applause, and the like. In this instance, it was the 350-person audience’s remarkable quiet that impressed the band, a crowd that must have contained three generations of fans, as the trio spotlighted Fade‘s hushed latter half: “Cornelia and Jane”, “Two Trains”, and “The Point of It”. Hubley took the lead for several older cuts, singing Kaplan’s part on “Tom Courtenay” and straining to reach the high notes on “Shadows”. Given the nature of the set, I would have liked to have heard more from …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out‘s atmospheric murmur and less of the sentimental intimacy of tracks like “I’ll Be Around” and “How To Make a Baby Elephant Float”. But I fiddled with my ear plugs in my pockets and patiently waited for the set that I knew was coming.
“Thanks, everyone,” Kaplan quipped soon enough. “See you in five minutes.” I expectantly reached for my ear plugs. It was more like 20, but after curtains dropped to reveal a stack of tube amps, the band reemerged and noise fantasies were suddenly gratified. Unleashing a deluge of feedback, Kaplan lurched immediately into a blissfully loud “Cherry Chapstick”, guitar fuzz sweetly blotting out the vocal melody. From there, it was an hour or more of Yo La Tengo at their most wonderfully noisy and sloppy, a set that ranged from stripped down Fade cuts (“Is That Enough”, sans the strings) to nineties gems (“Sugarcube”) to a momentary respite during the blue-eyed bachelor pop of “Mr. Tough”.
For Kaplan, particular highlights included a second, electric take on “Ohm”, during which the frontman flipped his guitar towards his torso and began playing it as a percussive instrument, and a rare, extended riff on “I Hear You Looking”, which found Kaplan sliding his guitar against the amp and holding it aloft, better to coax feedback out of its crevices. One encore later, the band concluded about where the show started: two gentle, “lullaby” covers, namely the Only Ones’ “Whole of the Law”, of Painful fame, and Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love”, slowed down to doo-wop speed.
How many bands with illustrious, two- or three-decade back catalogs insist, bafflingly, on playing the same 15-song set night after night? Even if the band’s recorded output no longer reaches quite the heights of Painful or I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, that’s a frustration Yo La Tengo won’t soon inspire. At one point even, during the encore, Kaplan spotted a fan’s vintage YLT shirt and asked if he had any requests. The fan simply asked for the following night’s program. Kaplan wouldn’t tell.
Photography by Tom Hardy.
From Black to Blue
How to Make a Baby Elephant Float
The Point of It
Cornelia and Jane
I’ll Be Around
Is That Enough
Before We Run
Nothing to Hide
I Heard You Looking
Disguises (The Who cover)
The Whole of the Law (The Only Ones cover)
Somebody’s in Love (Sun Ra cover)