By the glow of a plastic menorah in the back room of Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, Yo La Tengo have been celebrating Hanukah — as well as their own twentieth anniversary — on the same cramped stage where they began. Old friends, small children and fellow musicians have been joining the trio — husband and wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and James McNew — for the eight-night shindig, which wraps up Tuesday night.
Handpicked opening acts (including Calexico, the Coctails and the A-Bones — the latter two bands reuniting for the occasion) have warmed up for the band’s favorite stand-up comedians (including Patton Oswald and Air America radio host Marc Maron) before the birthday band’s own two-hour sets.
The trio has been pulling out all the stops during the intimate shows, kicking Night One into overdrive with holiday-appropriate covers of the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” and the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst lent a hand on T-Rex’s “The Slider,” as well as barely-recognizable stumble through Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Other guests have included former Tengo guitarist Dave Schramm; Tortoise’s Doug McCombs; Antietam’s Tim Harris and Tara Key, who helped out on Night Five’s “Rebel Rebel” encore; and Seventies Brit punk scenester Wreckless Eric, who belted out Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” on Night Two.
“It’s important for us to be doing this, and important to us to be doing it with old friends,” noted Kaplan from the stage. “The A-Bones we went and saw before we were ever a band.”
It’s also been a family affair, as the trio was joined by a dozen enthusiastic nieces, nephews and chums for a Night Five romp through Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” chant. “It’s a mother fucker!” they gleefully shouted in response to McNew’s call.
Yo La Tengo — who legendarily serve as a human jukebox for local WFMU’s annual pledge drive — have performed nearly 100 different songs so far, covering material from a vast range of artists, including Neil Diamond (“Kentucky Woman”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), the Kinks (“Better Things”), the Beach Boys (“Little Honda”), Bob Dylan (“I Wanna Be Your Lover”), Devo (“Beautiful World”), the late Terry Melcher (“Hungry”) and even the Rutles (“Ouch!”).
“It’s the best Hanukah ever!” Kaplan joked. He then paused to weigh the accuracy of his remark. “Well, one of ’em has to be.”