I WAS THERE . . . Yo La Tengo and Magnetic Fields @ Maxwells, 12.22.08 (Night #2 of the Hanukkah concert series)

“The portion of the show for which you did not require earplugs . . . has about three minutes remaining.”

Although Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo gives the audience fair warning, most are not prepared for the brain-shattering, pants-splintering, ear-demolishing two hours during which this legendary Hoboken indie band would teach us a whole new meaning of Hanukkah.

Before this aural earthquake, though, comes the surprise opening act, New York’s melancholy minstrels, Magnetic Fields. They inside-joke and sigh their way through old favorites, like the charmingly acerbic “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” and have the small crowd laughing with “The Nun’s Litany” and “Too Drunk To Dream.” Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo comes up to sing “Movies In My Head,” a number that she recorded with Stephin Merritt’s the 6ths. Other Merritt rarities included “Crows” and “What A Fucking Lovely Day!”

When Yo La Tengo takes the stage, familiar-sounding feedback launches into “Big Day Coming,” shaking the tiny club to life as James McNew mashes at the keyboard like a wild animal at its prey.

A cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Guess I’m Falling In Love” is followed by “Stockholm Syndrome,” which has Kaplan looking as if he is being continually electrocuted. His signature facial expression of intense concentration and almost frustration (he seems to scrutinizes his guitar like the most deep and intricate text of philosophy) only adds to the tense thrills of energy pulsing through the audience with each wave of feedback.

For the gorgeous “Don’t Have To Be So Sad,” the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson and Sam Davol contribute backing vocals and cello. “Alyda,” is performed with exquisite peacefulness, the lyrics turning into mere whispers, while later, with songs like “Double Dare,” our heroes really show their Sonic Youth-esque chops, creating immense noise that threatens to burst lil’ ol’ Maxwell’s at the seams.

During the finale, “The Story Of Yo La Tengo,” Kaplan weaves his guitar magic with loops and feedback, ending the 10-minute jam in insane abandon complete with Townsend-like thrashes and throes; the audience, utterly transfixed, is slowly deafened.

For the encore, Merritt returns to sing the perfectly suited, though unrehearsed, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” by Irving Berlin. Doug Gillard of Guided By Voices is then brought onstage, joining YLT for renditions of three impeccable choices: George Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day,” Herman’s Hermits’ “No Milk Today,” and the Dictators’ “Next Big Thing.” After Kaplan’s mom sings a version of “My Little Corner Of The World” that competes with the original, this audience shuffles into the winter night with one thought: if only holiday carols sounded a bit more like this . . .

Dorit Finkel

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