In what at first seems like the oddest of pairings, but then starts to make a perfect type of record-collector-geek sense when you think about it a minute, the great and recently rediscovered Chicago soul master Syl Johnson will play a special Hanukkah concert with the wonderful indie-rock heroes Yo La Tengo on Saturday at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, which is kind of like Yo La Tengo’s basement.
I saw Johnson play in Brooklyn last year, and he appeared to be, umm, a little too drunk, maybe? I feel kind of bad saying that; the guy is 74, and was famously jerked-over by record companies and under-appreciated artistically for a very long time; he deserves a drink or two or four to calm his nerves before going onstage. But his music — so crisp and sharp and restrained — doesn’t suit a stumbling-around, missing-cues performance as well as that of, say, Guided by Voices. Even if the overall experience was diminished, though, he pulled it together and delivered on a couple of his greatest songs, 1969’s “Is It Because I’m Black” being one of them.
We were recently discussing how Johnson’s songs have been heavily sampled by hip-hop producers over the years. At the concert I saw, Johnson angrily scolded the Wu-Tang Clan for doing so. “Shame on a nigga!” he said, throwing one of the group’s song-titles back at them. (Sadly, the show happened to be taking place on the fifth anniversary of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death, too. Though I’m not sure Johnson was aware of that.) He apparently felt like they hadn’t paid him enough, though, as he crows today, to the Times’ Ben Sisario, “I’m sitting in the house that Wu-Tang built with their money.”
Yo La Tengo is always great live, too. I’ve never seen them during their annual 8-days-of-Hanukkah run. But judging from this ripping version (Oh, Ira!) of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” they played Thursday night, they’ll be as wonderful as ever — if not even more so.
I bet the whole show will be great. Especially if Johnson lays off the Manischewitz some.