Ira Kaplan is not a religious man. So, when he and the members of his indie band, Yo La Tengo, decided to create a year-end series of benefit concerts during Hanukah in 2001, it had nothing to do with celebrating the Festival of Lights.
“Over the years, we thought of doing some kind of end-of-the-year party to [just] do something celebratory, and it never seemed to take place. The idea of having a Christmas party seemed so hackneyed,” Kaplan says. “Then the idea of, ‘What if we played Hanukkah? It would be funny to have a Hanukkah party instead of a Christmas party,’ came to us. It would be [outrageous], the audacity to play eight nights in a row—and the challenge of playing eight nights in a row. It seemed instantly kind of funny and difficult and irresistible,” Kaplan says.
On and off since 2001, Yo La Tengo has produced the Eight Nights of Hanukah concerts at Maxwell’s in their home base of Hoboken. Proceeds from the series—in past years amounting to more than $100,000—are donated to charity.
This year’s concerts—the fifth overall—are scheduled for December 4 through11. During the shows, Kaplan and his bandmates—wife and drummer Georgia Hubley, who founded the group with Kaplan in 1984, and bassist and vocalist James McNew, who joined the group in 1992—play music they rarely play, along with cover songs.
Often the bill is in flux until the very last second, but that frequently leads to pleasant surprises. In past years, comedians Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo and a wide range of musical acts have shared the stage with the venerable alt-rock trio. In 2002, Ray Davies, famed leader of the Kinks, took the stage in Maxwell’s packed-and-tiny back room. “I introduced him and kind of expected there to be this roar at his name. I realized afterward that it kind of built slowly. I think people didn’t understand me. I mentioned Ray Davies and forgot just how bad the sight lines can be at Maxwell’s. It’s really packed there.” Without a backstage area, Davies had to wade through the crowd to reach the stage and was unnoticed by many fans. “He was just this head walking in. So it was a slow realization that Ray Davies was about to perform at Maxwell’s—pretty amazing.”
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