Live: Happy Hanukkah! Yo La Tengo and The National at Maxwell’s

12/09/2010 1:29 PM |

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Forgive me for being sacrilegious, but the most exciting element of Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah residency at Maxwell’s, which wrapped up last night, isn’t the host band; it’s the guests. You know what you’re going to get from a YLT show—not that you won’t be blown away by Ira, Georgia, and James, because you will, but more on that later—but you don’t know who’s going to be joining them on-stage until about an hour before the show. And what’s better than a Hanukkah surprise?

I’ve been cursing myself all week for missing Jeff Tweedy (night three), Mission of Burma (night five) and the Feelies (night two), but I was hopeful the eighth and final night would provide some sort of Hanukkah Miracle. My prayers were answered, in the form of The National.

Brooklyn’s finest just returned to the states from a length European tour, and they were without much of their own equipment. But they were quite content borrowing YLT’s gear during the set; they seemed as happy to be performing during the Hanukkah shows as we were to be watching, even joking that last night was “all about fetishizing Yo La Tengo.”

The set began with two songs from Boxer, “Start a War” and “Slow Show,” which lived up to its name by being performed even slower than the version on the album, but things really took off with “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Conversation 16” (which really needs to be on The Walking Dead at some point), and “Apartment Story,” the band’s greatest triumph. Many of the National’s songs feel claustrophobic (“Stay inside ‘til somebody finds us/Do whatever the TV tells us”), making Maxwell’s the perfect location to see them perform. The venue holds roughly 200 people, the stage is fairly low (and in order for groups to get to the stage, they have to walk through crowd, as there’s no backstage), and the entire concert felt more like being in attendance at a recording session than an actual concert. Even lead singer Matt Berninger asked the audience if someone could grab him a Jameson on the rocks from the bar in the back. A few minutes later, there it was.

“Fake Empire” received the largest recognition applause of their set (and it was also the highlight of the two-piece horn section who added something extra to every song), but the real clapping came when the National invited Ira on stage for a performance of “Afraid of Everyone” and “Terrible Love.” Usually, when a band invites someone on stage, the guest usually stands around, looking pretty and passively playing a guitar. Not Ira. Foreshadowing what was to come, he played the guitar like he was mad at it. Ira isn’t on the list of people who immediately come to mind when discussing great stage theatrics, but he should be: he looks like he’s made of rubber, limbs flailing everywhere. I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever seen him up stand up straight when holding a guitar. After a refrain of “It takes an ocean not to break,” the National left the stage and the venue, presumably to sleep for days.

Onto Yo La Tengo. For my money, they’re the most consistent rock group in music today. But it’s the not just the consistency that makes YLT great—it’s the variation in their sets. It’s being able to begin your set with the 13-minute-plus “Night Falls on Hoboken,” with Ira beginning on acoustic guitar and ending on a two-piece drum kit, followed by a cover of “Eight Days with a Week.” Along with The Clean’s Hamish Kilgour, who played percussion and guitar for nearly every song last night, they were all over the musical map, effortlessly switching from noise rock (“Deeper Into Movies”) to pop (“Nothing to Hide”) to 20-minute epics (“Blue Line Swinger”) to gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Our Way to Fall”). Even their covers ranged from forgotten 60s folk songs (Norma Tanega’s “Walkin’ My Dog Named Cat”) to songs from New Zealand indie bands (“Gentle Hour” by Snapper and “Whatever I Do, It’s Right” by the Clean).

But they saved the best for last. After playing the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” and Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” (from the Toy Story 3 soundtrack!), with some help from Bruce Bennett and Gil Divine, Ira began singing, “Love power, I’m talking ‘bout love power.” Given a million guesses for which song YLT would end their set with, I never would have even considered “Love Power” from The Producers. During the song, Ira asked that we help him crowd surf, and we did. Or, we tried. He made it to the back of the club, but on his return to the stage, as he continued to scream about flowers and Hanukkah, the crowd who tried to gracefully carry him back on stage, myself included, we fucked up and dropped him on the stage. And we dropped him hard. All was quickly forgiven, though, and once the song ended, Georgia grabbed the electric menorah that’s been there for all eight shows, and the band gathered around. They counted off 1, 2, 3, and, with a little assistance from their guitar tech standing by the outlet, “blew out” the flames.

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury