From 2001 onward, Yo La Tengo spent most of their Hanukkah seasons performing an eight-night series of sold out benefit shows across the festival of lights. In the wake of COVID-19, the celebration still continues in the form of a three-hour Hanukkah special. From The Green Space’s Lower Manhattan studio, the show featured an opening guest, a comedy set and a lengthy main set by Yo La Tengo. Alongside vocalist and guitarist Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley on drums and James McNew on bass, various surprise guests were sprinkled in to join them on stage.
Amy Rigby, an old friend of Yo La Tengo, performed during some of their early shows, and continues to take part in their annual Hanukkah events. Rigby is known for her wit and transparency in her lyrics; the current COVID-19 conditions and politics have only added fuel to her fire.
In her first tune, “Welcome To The Block,” she spun a short tale relatable to most people right now. The song described an internal conflict about wanting to welcome her new neighbors next door, but instead she watches them from her window because of the virus. She expressed the everyday fear and uncertainty people in quarantine are facing, and the yearning for social contact. In quick political jest she added, “There’s a flag decal on their Jeep/ But that’s no proof someone’s a creep/ Wait there’s a peace sign on the bumper/ Phew, must mean those two aren’t some Trumpers.”
“That was now, and this was then,” she said introducing her next track, “The Summer of My Wasted Youth.” Her lyrics reminisced about blissful memories in the summers of the ’80s taking LSD, listening to Patsy Cline and not having a worry in the world. Before “The Last Time I Saw Bob,” Rigby read a passage from her memoir taking place in New York 1976, when she fell in love with Bob, a cigarette smoking Lou Reed loving boy her age. For her youthful solo set she went all out, “I sort of lost myself there for a second,” she said, winded after headbanging to “Dancing With Joey Ramone.” “But I guess that’s the point.”
Popular on public radio, and for his books, namely Naked, comedian David Sedaris took the stage to read a couple “New cheerful Christmas stories” that he wrote. He chuckled as he said “cheerful,” because it was pure sarcasm. As a preface, the common themes in both stories were death and satirical dark comedy. The first story was from the perspective of a mother named Meredith. She had two younger children who “defecated in their grandmother’s handbag” and “emptied a bucket of latex paint into the aquarium,” with a grocery list of mental health problems and arrest records as teenagers. In contrast, her two older children were angels who went on to prestigious universities and did constant charity work. When all of the children, now grown up, visited for Christmas, half of them couldn’t smell the turkey cooking because they contracted COVID. By the end, the mother was left with her surviving children, the rotten ones, and her daughter’s dog named Hitler that “just hates certain children.” The second tale, “Death Knows No Season,” told of a seven-year-old boy named Kent writing a thank you letter to a tattooed biker, mistaken as Santa by his white beard, for murdering his abusive hillbilly stepfather named Cornelius.
During intermissions of stage set up, DJs sifted through stacks of records to throw on tracks like “I’m The Urban Spaceman” Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “Obsolete” by Howard Werth and “Just One Look” by Doris Troy.
For the final and main set of the night, Yo La Tengo opened up with “Here You Are,” the last track on their 2018 album There’s a Riot Going On, and “The Hour Grows Late” from Electro-pura, 1995. The eerily serene tracks featured vocals from all three members and Kaplan (literally) flicking at the strings on his guitar with a closed fist over the frets. Blasting through more of their originals, the set picked up pace for “Saturday” and “From A Motel 6.” Eyes closed, Kaplan looked like he went to another world while singing and creating distortions with his guitar. An overhead angle gave the audience a good view of Hubley on the drums. Kaplan picked up his acoustic for “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” and sat down at the piano for “Autumn Sweater.”
Throughout the 21-song set, the trio performed an extensive, wide range of cover songs. Cruising back down to a slower pace, the first cover of the set was “We Travel the Spaceways,” by Sun Ra. “That song in particular is dedicated to our friend Danny Ray Thompson who left this planet just after Hanukkah last year, and we miss him,” added Kaplan. He dedicated the next cover, “I Want to Be With You” by The Bonzo Dog Band, to singer Neil Innes who passed in 2019. The set also featured their first live performances of “Roll On Babe,” a Ronnie Lane cover, and “Smile a Little Smile For Me” by The Flying Machine from their new EP Sleepless Night, released this October.
As promised, several special guests joined the stage. The first was Ivan Julian of Richard Hell & the Voidoids for “I Heard You Looking,” the last song of the set before their five-song encore. Earlier in the show, the band also covered “New Pleasure” by Richard Hell & The Voidoids (without Julian).
To kick off the encore, Todd Lance, AKA “Todd-o-phonic Todd,” joined the band for his “signature number,” a cover of “Aba-Daba-Do Dance” by The Tradewinds, a silly back-and-forth song that brought smiles to all of their faces. Next to come was Wreckless Eric, singing his own iconic 1977 “Whole Wide World” with his thick English accent. Amy Rigby hopped up to join him in a sweet duet. He also covered “Outside Chance” by The Turtles.
For the last act of the night, Kaplan’s mother, Marilyn, joined him on stage to incorporate a wholesome piece of the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah tradition. She told a joke in Yiddish, that surely would’ve drawn out cheers and claps from a live show audience. In a delicate acoustic version of “My Little Corner of The World” by Anita Bryant, her voice didn’t waiver. The pleasant familial touch brought the show to a close as Kaplan took his mother by the hand and they exited off stage together.
All funds collected for the show were donated toward the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) in an effort to aid struggling independent music venues during this mass wipe out of live events.
Yo La Tengo:
Encore (From Yo La Tengo):
Photo Credit: Nathan Edge