Yo La Tengo 2012 Hanukkah Diary

Night 8, 12/15/12

Let’s start with some thank yous. In a three-way tie for first, Suzanne Despres, Joe Puleo and Mark Luecke (battling a mouthful of sores) worked nonstop, starting way before the shows began, to make it all run pretty damn seamlessly. Jay Miller, Dutch Worthington and Bill Stites did some heavy lifting (literally). Eugene Mirman and Eric Dimenstein went above/beyond from behind the scenes. Janice Headley made this diary look right. Liz Clayton took all the photos, except for a few by Jessica Lee, Max Rosenthal and Jason Koffman. Maxwell’s — no band ever had a better home base. Todd, Carson, Mitch . . . everybody, thanks so much.

As recalled during his opening set, we were in the audience at Norman Blake’s first US appearance, when Teenage Fanclub previewed A Catholic Education at some Manhattan rehearsal studio that none of us could recall the name of yesterday. What better guest to have on the final night? I swooned when he opened with “It’s All in My Mind” (recorded by John McEntire on TFC’s superlative Man-Made record). There had been some pre-show discussion of asking Norman to sing “Everything Flows” during our set, but hearing his heart-tugging solo version confirmed that we made the right call. And how about that nifty capo choreography!

Norman Blake (photo by Liz Clayton)

Followers of the Yo La Tengo twitter were alerted some time ago to WFMU air personality Gaylord Fields‘s investigation of the fake Beatles phenomenon of 1964. We invited Gaylord to edify the night eight crowd, and he did not disappoint, shutting down a heckler and adding some new material (a short detour into Wyncote Records territory).

Gaylord Fields (photo by Liz Clayton)

We opened night eight with “Ohm” (recorded by John McEntire on YLT’s forthcoming Fade record). Norman helped us out for the rest of the set. We took care of some unfinished business from our repertoire (“The Cone of Silence,” “I Feel Like Going Home”), played some covers both observant (“Goin’ Back”) and non- (“Walking on Ice”). Next up was one-time Teenage Fanclub producer Don Fleming for his classic “Evelyn Marble,” Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and TFC’s “God Knows It’s True.” We closed with “I Heard You Looking,” from both the Yo La Tengo and Teenage Fanclub book, and — what else? — “Eight Days a Week.” And that was almost that. We climbed the stairs from the basement one last time, already drumming the intro to “Antmusic,” and pulled some percussionists from the front row for a little bonus thunder. Gaylord had a few more observations he wanted to make, and as long as he was there, we backed him on “My Little Red Book” and the Great Gaylord/Condo Fucks classic (by way of the Rolling Stones) “Rice Krispies.” And oh yeah, my mom sang “My Little Corner of the World.” I unplugged the menorah (if I only I had heard it referred to as the meNorman in time to use that joke on stage), and THAT was that.

As we did all Hanukkah, the proceeds went to help with the recovery from Sandy. Last night’s recipient was Jersey Shore Relief. Yoni Wolf put together the mix cd. Hey, everybody, thanks for coming. A giant thank you to each and every performer. We had a blast . . . and we’re really really glad it’s over!

Night 7, 12/14/12

I knew of no way to deal with the horror of yesterday’s news other than to try to force it from the front of my brain. Right now it feels trivial to be writing this. I doubt there’s anything that can make sense of what happened, but maybe for a few hours at Maxwell’s last night, we could be comforted by music, laughing, and community.

So . . . Titus Andronicus opened the night with a roar — I always read about them as being a punk-rock group, and maybe they are in the old-fashioned (and my favorite) definition of that term as “indescribable.” Patrick made the only mention from the stage of the night about Connecticut, which makes him stronger than me. A great set, closing with the breathtaking one-two of “Titus Andronicus Forever” and the seasonal favorite “Roadrunner.”

Titus Andronicus (photo by Liz Clayton)

If you spend any time around the three of us, sooner or later you’ll hear one or everybody burst into “Acappella Ghostbusters,” as made famous by Jon Glaser and Jon Benjamin‘s Soundtrackappella (or is it Soundtracappella — I forgot to ask, but that’s ok, they’d have given me two different answers). Ten years after Hanukkah 2002, we asked them if they agreed with us it was time for a return engagement. It was a bit dicey for a while; the years of travel, Greg’s drinking, and a disagreement over how the Earth would end brought the duo dangerously close to an on-stage breakup. But the voice of an angel emerged, imploring Jason to “smile,” and they finished strong with “Acappella Danger Zone.” Eventually.

We played as a quartet, joined by Andrew Bird, who provided pretty dazzling violin to our entire set. “Stupid Things” was reprised from night two, but otherwise we pulled out songs previously unplayed — I’m pretty sure “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float,” to name one, has never sounded better. Holiday selections abounded: Andrew sang Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” Georgia broke hearts with “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” and I popped eardrums on the set-ending “Heroin.” For the encore, we asked Devendra Banhart if he had any songs written by Jews that he’d like to sing and boy did he ever. Hanukkah debuts for both Jorma Kaukonen (“Song for the North Star“) and Al Jolson (“If I Only Had a Match”).

I compiled the mix cd and we donated the proceeds to Waves for Water’s Hurricane Sandy Relief Initiative. I hope tomorrow you find better things.

Night 6, 12/13/12

It’s possible that we met Barbara Manning on the same day in 1990 that we met James and Joe Puleo. We were booked at Providence’s Rocket with World of Pooh, featuring Barbara on bass, and Christmas, in new bassist James McNew’s first show. So it was especially meaningful to us that, after a few years of playing hard to get, Barbara was available to open night six. As a responsible diarist, I am not here to tell lies, no matter how painful the truth, so I’m freely admitting that as Hanukkah proceeds we are growing progressively untethered from time and space. In other words, at some point while we were writing set lists and doing knee bends and undertaking our other pre-show rituals, we realized that it was well past 8:30. Finding out I missed “Never Park” and “Sympathy Wreath” was a lot like Hank Kingsley finding out he overslept through the opening of the Lookaround Cafe. At least I arrived in plenty of time to hear “I’m on the Wrong Side” and learn that Barbara’s been writing songs for George Jones.

With the Hoboken PATH station closed, people are having to be extra creative about how they get to Maxwell’s. On night five, John Oliver revealed a heretofore untried method that involved a train to Secaucus (not recommended) and last night, Eugene Mirman described a route that no GPS would concoct unless the current model, in addition to helping you avoid tolls or find the shortest distance, offers to take you where you’re most likely to be murdered. Fortunately for us, and certainly Eugene, he lived to tell us about his local Guitar Center, where he’s the two most famous shoppers, and the difference between stairs in England and the U.S. Before his set was over, he had presided over a marriage, and brought Larry Murphy on stage for a playlet in which Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln calls tech support (acted by an audience member who demonstrated a little less respect for the written word than I think Eugene and Larry were expecting).

If you’re scoring at home, last night we played “Big Day Coming” for the third time, in its third arrangement, this one being the way it was written, as heard on the opening cut of Painful. We dusted off “Winter A-Go-Go,” “Five-Cornered Drone” and “Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop,” and closed with “Blue Line Swinger.” Asked if she wanted to sing with us, Barbara Manning suggested a song by Ten Wheel Drive. We took one look at the chart, and asked what her second choice was. Fast forward a bit and we were on stage backing Barbara and her fiancé Dan on the Yule Logs’ “Christmas Is Lonely (When You’re a Jew).” We weren’t going to let her leave without one more of our favorites from her songbook, so night six ended with “B4 We Go Under.”

The mix cd was compiled by our friends at Three-Lobed Recordings and the loot was donated to the Ali Forney Center.

Night 5, 12/12/12

James has been doing the poster at the door each night, and doing great work (in fact, Sunday’s poster may have been too good — stolen within seconds of being taped up). But he outdid himself last night:

the concert to benefit the brooklyn recovery fund

By now, the careful reader has surmised that the night began with a set by El-P, supported by Shannon Moore and backed by a three-piece band including James on bass. It looked to me like culture shock in the best sense–I’m not going to pretend I attend a lot of hip-hop shows, and clearly El-P is used to seeing a lot more hands in the air when said request is made. On the other hand, the singalong on “No Kings” went kinda swimmingly.

photo by
torbitt wilder, james, shannon moore, and el-p (photo by max rosenthal)
shannon moore (photo by max rosenthal)

During this Sandy-related Hanukkah (by now, the careful reader knows last night’s charity was the Brooklyn Recovery Fund), it was especially helpful to have John Oliver join us to provide some much-needed perspective. It’s not damage from the storm that should be worrying us, it’s America’s declining empire and the digital record we’re bequeathing to future generations. He suggested a few more looted treasures and a few less videos of being kicked in the family jewels. And maybe a new national anthem.

photo by max rosenthal

It doesn’t happen often during Hanukkah, but once in a while we play a set from start to finish as a trio, and last night was that night. James sang the holiday classic “I Can Hear Music” and we shouted out to our host Toddophonic Todd during “Mr. Tough” before closing with “The Story of Yo La Tango.” A special thank you to tour manager/merch salesman/raconteur for donning his guitar tuner cap this season, and looking very sporty in it indeed.

Joe at Merch (photo by Max Rosenthal)
photo by Jessica Lee
photo by Jessica Lee

It was Georgia‘s turn in the mix cd player. As Paul McCartney did not sing last night: It’s getting very near the end.

Night 4, 12/11/12

Bugs Bunny put it well: another day, another carrot.

Once we decided to give all of this year’s money to Sandy-related charities (last night’s was Hoboken’s volunteer first responders), it seemed especially appropriate to keep the opening acts close to home as well. With Real Estate, we managed to keep it close to everyone’s home: formed in New Jersey, based in Brooklyn — the only thing missing was they don’t seem quite so broken up about Dames closing their Hoboken location as we are. They played a beautiful set — had I been more on the ball I would have asked the name of that supercool long new song they did third.

photo by Liz Clayton

When Alex Bleeker sang his first lead vocal of the night on the second to last song of the set, he probably didn’t realize the shock waves were going to still be reverberating a half hour later. But at least one person in the audience found it hilariously noteworthy: our next act of the evening, Todd Barry, who spent a minute or two questioning the set list. Just off the plane from Australia where he had performed at the Sydney Opera House, Todd announced his farewell appearance at Maxwell’s, as henceforth he will be working exclusively at opera houses and palais. He will be missed.

photo by Liz "scared to be close to comedians" Clayton

We played our set as a quartet, augmented by the mighty Kid Millions of Oneida and Man Forever, freeing James to make his bass guitar debut on “Spec Bebop” and Georgia to make a rare appearance on Ace Tone for “The Summer.” We ended with “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” climaxing with both Georgia and Kid on guitar, helping James and me make the most ungodly noise we could. You’re welcome. For the encore, we played the seasonal evergreen “Burnin’ for You,” with Todd Barry on drums and Georgia on cowbell (and give your Maxwell’s audience a standing ovation for resisting the urge to yell “more cowbell”). Finally, we brought back Martin Courtney to help me sing “Our Way to Fall.”

photo by Liz Clayton
photo by Liz Clayton

The mix cd was compiled by Shintaro Sakamoto. One more night and it’s an official holiday!

Night 3, 12/10/12

I said it last night, and I just may say it again tomorrow: Without the Feelies, I can’t really imagine our band being around today. They wanted to contribute in some way to the recovery from Sandy, and really I have no words to describe how it felt to have them spend night three of Hanukkah with us.

The Feelies (photo by Liz Clayton)

We had been trying to get John Mulaney to join us over Hanukkah for years now, and last night it finally happened. People, I’m not going to lie to you — my mind is mush. I laughed from start to finish, but all I can recall this morning is him hobnobbing with the musical guests at Saturday Night Live and the single funniest thing that ever happened at a McDonald’s (bumping this to second place).

John Mulaney (photo by Liz Clayton)

If you think we were going to let the Feelies leave without joining us on stage, you’ve got the wrong festival of lights. Glenn Mercer joined us early on for “Time Fades Away” (is Neil Young Jewish?) and “Barnaby Hardly Working.” Mid-set, drummers Stanley Demeski and Dave Weckerman added assorted claves, sleigh bells, tambourines and maracas to “Tired Hippo,” “The Room Got Heavy,” “False Alarm” and “Double Dare.” For the encore, Bill Million helped us back Brenda Sauter as she sang “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” and then we said goodnight to Brenda and brought back Glenn. Years ago at Maxwell’s, to end our first-ever show, Glenn played “Pretty in Pink” with us. Pretty sure Richard Butler isn’t Jewish, so the five of us did “Sister Ray” instead.

you ain’t going nowhere (photo by Liz Clayton)
false alarm (photo by Liz Clayton)
james, georgia, gil jr. and dave play Double Dare (photo by Liz Clayton)
sister ray

We donated the door to the Community Foodbank of New Jersey and the mix cd of the night was by James.

Night 2, 12/9/12

Night two started with the miracle that is the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen. I don’t remember writing the set list for them, but when they opened with “Interplanetary Music,” and followed it with classic after classic — “Saturn,” “Rocket #9,” “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” — it was clear that I had. On the other hand, I know it was our idea to team the Arkestra up with Sabir Mateen and Darius Jones. There were other differences from the . . . I was going to type “usual” but that may not be the operative word with the Arkestra . . . from other sets I’ve seen: the 13-member ensemble included no percussionists other than drummer Craig Haynes, and most everybody stood for the whole set. Having tickets to Maxwell’s is pretty much the only reasonable excuse for not heading over to Nublu when the Arkestra come back to town this Thursday.

Knoel Scott, Darius Jones, Danny Ray Thompson (photo by Liz Clayton)
Sabir Mateen and James Stewart (photo by Liz Clayton)
Marshall Allen (photo by Liz Clayton)

Luckily for us, Fred Armisen appears uninterested in down time. On a night off from his two tv shows, he came to Maxwell’s to soundcheck, found a tv to watch his guest spot on The Simpsons, and got back in plenty of time for a set that included impressions of Elvis Costello and a guy watching a blues band at a street fair. He answered some questions (sorry, if you’re looking for Tina Fey’s cell phone number, you just had to be there), and even found time for one of his hits.

photo by Liz Clayton

And then he stuck around to play drums with us. Early on, James sang the holiday classic “Who Loves the Sun” and we played “Stupid Things” for the first time, but that was just the preamble. Midway through “Walking Away from You,” Sabir and Darius came on stage to blow our minds and hopefully yours. The six of us did “Shaker,” “Nuclear War,” “And the Glitter Is Gone” and “Our Way to Fall,” and I for one wish that the end of that last song, just the two horns playing together, was still going on right now. The Arkestra had to get back to Philadelphia, but we took their request for Sun Ra’s “Dreaming” nonetheless and then we headed for our homes.

photo by Liz Clayton
left to right: James, Darius, Sabir, Fred, Gil Jr. (photo by Liz Clayton)

The mix cd was courtesy of Kurt Wagner and proceeds are being donated to Staten Island Strong.

Night 1, 12/8/12

Steve Almaas of the Raybeats arrived at soundcheck yesterday, his pocket bulging with dollar coins, courtesy of the bus ticket machine at Port Authority, the first but not the last person Saturday to discover en route to Maxwell’s that the PATH train remains out of commission. We were able to relieve Steve of his change, but the rest of the cleanup of our town won’t be as easily accomplished. We donated the proceeds from night one of our 2012 Hanukkah shenanigans to the Rebuild Hoboken Relief Fund, the first of eight Sandy-related charities we’ll be supporting this year.

We’ve been seeing the Raybeats for so long that we remember when they were being billed as the Ex-Contortions (we also recall rotary phones, no-security airline check-in . . . stories? oh, do we have stories!). Last night they did a too-short smorgasbord from their two lp’s — can we cite the set’s brevity to rationalize our not coming up with any photos of them? Perhaps, but how do we explain not wrangling drummer Don Christensen to reprise his impLOG version of Jewish songwriters Leiber and Stoller’s “On Broadway”? I blame the world (and it could be the world’s fault, I don’t know), or first-night jitters. In any case, we had played with the Raybeats at Maxwell’s once before, so here’s a photo from that night.

The Raybeats (photo by Liz Clayton)

UPDATE 12/10–To prove that it really existed, audience member Jason Koffman provides us with an authentic Hanukkah photo of The Raybeats in action Saturday night.

The Raybeats (photo by Jason Koffman)

I know why we have no photos of Emo Philips -– he asked us not to take any. It seemed the least we could do after he so graciously took the long way home from his previous date in Hamilton, NY to be with us. Am I right to suggest that local Emo Philips appearances are nearly as rare as those of the Raybeats? The jokes were coming so fast, it’s difficult for me to pick a favorite. But I’ll bet WFMU air personality Gaylord Fields would have no such problem: I could hear his dumbfounded laughter when Emo pulled off a punchline drawing the distinction between the Latin and Greek meanings of “homo.” (I’m sure Gaylord will be only too happy to explain.)

One of the ideas behind starting these Hanukkah shows back in 2001 was to have a party with all of our friends. And maybe it hasn’t quite worked out that way (or then again, maybe it has, I don’t host a lot of parties), but it is an opportunity to see people who have been in and out of our lives for forever. With all the panache of a Vegas entertainer, I acknowledged a few of them last night, dedicating our surf-style “The Evil That Men Do” to the Raybeats, new song “Before We Run” to Emily Hubley, and “Big Day Coming” to Jesse Jarnow (that reminds me–-Jesse will be at the Hoboken Historical Museum (1301 Hudson Street) tonight at 6:30 p.m. to speak on “McCarty’s, Maxwell’s, And The Secret Power of Hoboken”). So happy to see beloved friends from not-so-beloved ex-labels, stunned to see the old friend who actually introduced me to Georgia, and I don’t know how to describe my post-set chat with Chelsea, who identified herself as one of the two singers of “Warm Leatherette” at our new wave karaoke encore at a CBGB’s 1992 (1992!!) Planned Parenthood benefit we took part in, organized by our pals at Tannis Root. They’re the people who print our t-shirts, and it just so happens that we have some beauties this year, courtesy of evil genius Stephen Hunking. You can even purchase one of them on line (take that, rotary phone!). Night one’s mix cd was compiled by WFMU air personality Tom Scharpling (co-star of our “Tom Courtenay” video). It all comes around.

We got Jody Harris from the Raybeats to join us for the set closers, “The Kid With the Replaceable Head” and “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” I carelessly put my stopwatch in the washing machine, but it’s entirely possible that the last number was longer than the Raybeats’ set, and I offer apologies in whatever direction required for that. We gave Liz Clayton the go-ahead to take a few pictures. See you tonight.