Yo La Tengo @ Maxwell’s

On December 28, 2011 by Will Hermes

This past Monday, I finally caught a Yo La Tengo Chanukah show.

They’ve been playing their eight-night holiday runs at Maxwell’s in Hoboken for 10 years now, give or take a couple. And for me, anyway, they seemed like the Statue of Liberty: an awesome local attraction I definitely intended to visit one of these years. But time takes its toll. This summer on the Williamsburg pier, I saw what might turn out to be (in the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s separation) the last NYC Sonic Youth show ever. Then, this fall, during a panel discussion for Love Goes To Buildings On Fire at Housing Works over on Crosby Street, Lenny Kaye said this would be the final year the Patti Smith Band did their New Year’s Eve run—which, excepting her Detroit years, has been a tradition since the mid-’70s.

So when my friend Jason said he was flying in from Minneapolis to catch three nights of the Yo Las, and that he had an extra ticket for the night before my birthday, I jumped.

Ira Kaplan, Yo La’s frontman and guitarist, was having some unnamed health problems, according to an email he sent to fans. So the shows were unusual. For one, he performed seated. For another, the band was using a second guitarist. The first few nights it was Tara Key, of the excellent ’80s indie-rock outfit Antietam. For night #7, it was Dave Schramm, a local dude who was a member of Yo La Tengo on their first album, after which he left to pursue other musical paths, in the process becoming a go-to guitarist for various local acts, including the gifted singer-songwriter Kate Jacobs.

The show was very good. It didn’t always cohere: Schramm is a precise player, Kaplan more sprawling. But they often met in the middle. At times Kaplan seemed in some discomfort, but he pushed through it. It was a very touching scene. Yo La Tengo played their first show at Maxwell’s back in the mid-’80s, and they live not far away. The club went on to become a CBGBs of the ’80s indie-rock scene, the band to become a standard-bearer of the same; I saw them easily a dozen times over the years in one town or another, tirelessly criss-crossing the country, sometimes opening, sometimes headlining, as dependably moving—ripping, sad, joyous—as any band on the scene. Tonight, the audience had a fair number of 20- and 30-somethings. But it was mainly folks of Kaplan’s vintage, in their 40s and 50s, that filled the room, music lifers to one extent or another, one would guess, players or fans or both. Coming out of the crowd to guest on a few songs was Peter Stampfel, the veteran New York City folk scene prankster (see The Holy Modal Rounders), playing dissonant fiddle licks and grinning like a fool.

The clock struck midnight, I was another year older, and the band capped an encore bunch of impressively obscure covers with a suitably noisy version of “Prisoners of Rock’N’Roll” from Neil Young’s 1987 LP Life.

People tell us
that we play too loud
But they don’t know
what our music’s about
We never listen
to the record company man
They try to change us
and ruin our band.

That’s why we don’t wanna be good
That’s why we don’t wanna be good
We’re prisoners of rock and roll.

When were jammin’
in our old garage
The girls come over
and it sure gets hot
We don’t wanna be watered down
Takin’ orders
from record company clowns.

That’s why we don’t wanna be good
That’s why we don’t wanna be good
We’re prisoners of rock and roll.
We’re prisoners of rock and roll.

Indeed they are.

A very good recording of the run’s third night is downloadable here courtesy of @nyctaper. There’s a fierce version of Sonic Youth’s “Mote” – a Lee Ranaldo song from Goo that could be read as a comment on a disintegrated relationship, an empathetic nod to some fellow travellers.

UPDATE: The show I saw was also recorded by the intrepid @nyctaper. Listen to it here.

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