Yo La Tengo 2005 Hanukkah Diary

Night 1, 12/25/05

21 years of being compared to the Velvet Underground became worth it when Eugene Mirman opened his set by admitting that, though not a musician, he too was influenced by the Velvet Undergound.  In his case, they inspired him to become a comedian. And it turns out, he doesn’t even know “Take No Prisoners.”  The Mad Scene were great—listening to the twin guitar attack of Hamish Kilgour and Georgia Hubley brought me back to the old days in Dunedin that I never knew.

We took the stage in our holiday finery—James dressed as a rabbi, me as Santa Claus, and Georgia as, what else, Robin, the Boy Wonder.  If we weren’t related to the photographers who failed to get more than one in-focus photo of our costumes, there’d be one hell of a can of whupass being opened.  We opened with a couple of seasonal numbers, Madonna’s “Holiday” and Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Seven Day Weekend,” adapted for the occasion to “Eight Day Weekend.”  Hamish played a few songs with us, and he and Lisa Siegel sang a lovely version of “Je T’Aime,” but really when it comes down to it, the whole night is about my mom.  She tore the roof off the sucker by singing “My Little Corner of the World” with us, and naturally we have no photo.

See you tomorrow.—Ira

Night 2, 12/26/05

PG Six unveiled his big band, in what I like to think of as the classic Richard and Linda Thompson “Shoot Out the Lights” configuration: Pat Gubler and Debby Schwartz singing, PG and Bob Bannister on guitar, Steve Connolly on bass and Robert Dennis on drums.  (If you missed Robert last night, never fear, he’ll be back on New Year’s Eve with The Scene Is Now.)  Just when I thought I couldn’t enjoy their set any more, they closed with a cover of Television’s “The Dream’s Dream.”

Todd Barry’s got so many great new jokes that when he pulled out his classic about the smiley-face tattoo, it was like seeing Zeppelin go into “Whole Lotta Love,” only better, because I don’t really like Led Zeppelin.  He made fun of our charity, the city of Portland, and the entire front row.  Funny stuff.

I meant to mention this yesterday, but this year we’re selling mixed cd’s with all the money going to the night’s charity, one per night.  James arranged the whole thing.  We’ve each done one, and there are five guest mixes.  So far we’ve had Georgia’s and one by Jonathan Lethem.

We repeated “Little Eyes” from night one, but otherwise it was different, unless you count “Big Day Coming,” which got the acoustic treatment the first night and its classic (my new year’s resolution is to use the word classic as often as possible) loud arrangement last night, as the photos below demonstrate.  Pat and Bob joined us for the set-closing cover of Fairport Convention’s “Flowers of the Forest,” and then Georgia moved to the bongos so Todd Barry could demonstrate his finesse with the left-handed drum kit on “Jeepster.”  We finished with a two-song tribute to D. Boon: Richard Hell’s “Time” (sung by Pat) and BOC’s “Burnin’ for You” (sung by James, with me and Bob providing the harmony lead guitar).

See you tonight, and don’t forget to check out http://www.toddbarry.com.  Guess which sentence Todd Barry asked me to include. —Ira

Night 3, 12/27/05

Every time we put on these Hanukkah shows, we make a lot of calls and write a lot of emails, and try not to take the rejections personally (oh sure, Roger Waters has time to sit courtside at a Knicks game and jaw with Al Trautwig, but try and get him to come to Maxwell’s and sing “Porpoise Song” and suddenly he’s Mr. Busy).  A lineup like last night’s makes all the no’s worth it.  Tortoise came in from Chicago for an unpaid one-off, and we still can’t quite believe it.  Luckily we’ve got photgraphic evidence.

Next up was Demetri Martin, who brought along his Findings, poster-sized charts propped on an easel, and actually got the overstuffed back room, each and every person, to follow along, including me, and I couldn’t see a thing.  We not only laughed, but we learned a little bit too, like how to spell the plural of dildo.

We took the stage as a sextet, with Doug, Jeff and John McEntire from Tortoise, opening with “Bad Politics” (that’s what’s going on in this photo—Jeff’s hidden behind Doug, and Georgia’s jamming on the guitar just to the right of where the photo ends).  We did a few more songs together, then they started drifting off—I think the no-smoking request we’ve made for these shows did them in.  John Herndon came on and did a few songs too.  As Demetri pointed out during his set, you either thank someone once or you thank them a million, nothing in between.  Thanks a million to Tortoise.

And then Lenny Kaye joined us for the encore, on his 59th birthday no less, for a salute to his incredible Nuggets compilation, a record that almost singlehandedly created the genre of garage rock.  So many classics (that new year’s resolution’s working out great for me) and so many written by Jews.  We did “Night Time” and “No Time Like the Right Time” and hell yeah “Moulty,” how did we forget “Let’s Talk About Girls”?  For good measure, we did “Pushin’ Too Hard” (Lenny’s not positive, but pretty sure that Saxon was shortened from Saxonberg) and “Shock Me,” the b-side to the, yes, classic Link Cromwell 45 “Crazy Like a Fox.”  Lenny even referenced “Burnin’ for You,” unaware that James had sung it the night before.  A great night.

See you tonight.  And actually we never approached Roger Waters—who knew he had time to sit courtside at a Knicks game and jaw with Al Trautwig?—Ira

Night 4, 12/28/05

The poet Sting had a word for it: synchronicity.  First, Lenny Kaye mentions “Burnin’ for You,” and then last night the Sun Ra Arkestra blew our minds by referencing Georgia’s night 1 Robin costume with an insanely great “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman,” complete with Michael Ray threatening to unmask George Bush and Dick Cheney.  What a set: “Neptune,” “Body and Soul,” “We’ll Wait for You,” and what was the name of that incredible opening number?

As Small Change’s mixed cd played over the p.a. the crew struck the Arkestra’s chairs and music stands in no time, setting the stage for Jon Benjamin and Jon Glaser aka the Brothers Italiano.  If you were there, you know the song you left Maxwell’s singing was “Whatsamatta With the Meatball.”  We lived and died a little each time Jon Glaser’s fake moustache lost traction with his real beard.

We opened with “Beach Party Tonight,” accompanied by the Arkestra’s Fred Adams and Michael Ray on trumpet and Dave Davis and Tyrone Hill on trombone.  They played most of the set with us, including a rare performance of “Out the Window.”  As “Little Honda” hit its peak, tenor saxophonist Ya Ya joined in the cacophony, and hung around for the set-closing “Nuclear War.”

For the encore we brought up our pal Stephen Hunking to play one of our favorites from the superior Hypnolovewheel songbook: his “I Dream of Jeannie,” which kicked off both Hypnolovewheel’s album Space Mountain and the reunion show they played with us at Hanukkah 2001.  Stephen’s designed every one of the shirts we’ve sold at our Hanukkah shows.

With all the excitement, we barely had time to acknowledge the achievements of the Jewish songwriter. Handsome T. Lance to the rescue.  He looked like a million and sang the Dictators’ “(I Live for) Cars and Girls” with all the gusto that his legion of fans have come to expect, all that and a chorus of “Whatsamatta With the Matzo Ball” to boot.

And as I type, Jad Fair’s plane is just about to land.  See you tonight.—Ira

Night 5, 12/29/05

Half Japanese—Half Japanese!!—took the stage, 5/6 of their, you know it, classic Loud lineup intact: Jad Fair, David Fair, John Dreyfuss, Ricky Dreyfuss, and Mark Jickling.  Mark’s son Ian on bass.  “Mary Jickling looks like Mona Lisa …” ohmigod it’s “My Concentration, Oh No.”  Seeing Jad & David up there again together, egging each other on in ever-increasing mayhem, I just don’t have the words.  Somewhere along the line, Ian split.  About midway through, Jad brought up Don Fleming for a completely mental “I’ll Change My Style.”  After Don sang “Vietnam,” we came on for the last eight songs, culminating—too soon in every way except for my aching saxophone-playing muscles—in “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “I Walk Through Walls.”

Louis C.K. really got into the holiday spirit, telling one uplfting hilarious story after another about hating his kids, cutting off motorists in L.A. just for the fun of it, and texting Todd Barry to tell him he hopes his plane crashes.  He seemed to have some problem with talkers up front, but in back we were hanging on his every profane word.

After the last two nights of musical chairs, tonight we were back in trio mode.  We did two songs from May I Sing With Me for perhaps the first time this decade, and Jad sang two selections from our Strange But True collaboration (lyrics by David).  Closed with Roky Erickson’s version of “Heroin.”

For the encore, we somehow cajoled David Johansen into coming out to Hoboken and singing a few songs with us.  I’ve just scanned that sentence for typos, but nope that’s what happened.  We started with Bacharach/David’s “After the Fox,” originally performed by Peter Sellers and the Hollies, and continued with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “Out in the Streets.”  We added our buddy Bruce Bennett on guitar for the Fugs’ “Doin’ All Right” (the only song we could think of to keep Louis C.K.’s set company), and then “Chinese Rocks.”  I’ve just got to take a moment and publicly thank David Johansen for agreeing to do that song, that blew us away.  We closed with “Who Are the Mystery Girls.”  It was a blast.  In the back room after the show, Gary Panter’s cd mix faded out, and us stragglers sang one more chorus of “Whatsamatta With the Meatball” and then went home.

We’re all getting a bit tired, but we’re going to collectively channel our inner Jerry Lewis and rock on. See you tonight.—Ira

Night 6, 12/30/05

I’m pretty sure none of the members of Volcano Suns are Jewish, so in a certain sense you have to admire their attempt at suffusing themselves in the holiday traditions.  But on the other hand, there’s a crucial difference between lighting a menorah and setting one of our amplifiers on fire.  Let’s let a smile be our fire extinguisher, for there was a lot to smile about.  The Volcano Suns got back together for the first time in seven years, and played outside of Boston for the first time in, oops forgot to find out.  Peter warned us he had ruined his voice the night before at their Boston show (if not during rehearsals), but this hardly unbiased observer thought he sounded great.  Get out your magnifying glass and check out the set list—they did all your old favorites (except “Sea Cruise” and “I’m Gonna Make You Mine” and “I Walk Around” and . . .)

We love to laugh, but sometimes comedians, even some of our favorites, can be so mean.  But as Raisin demonstrated, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Whether singing about his fondness for AC/DC and Black Sabbath, or his heartbreak in a candle-lovers chat room, his message was always optimism (my word) or rum titty pum (his). Raisin—who bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Late Night With Conan O’Brien writer/performer Brian McCann—is welcome on our stage anytime, but I can’t think of a more appropriate time than the holiday season.  Thank you, sir.

We were honored to have soundtrack (notably Heaven’s Gate) composer/former Alpha Band member/Rolling Thunder Revue participant/it’s a very long resume David Mansfield sitting in with us on violin.  We’d never met before he got to Maxwell’s in the afternoon, but to hear his beautiful contributions to our songs, you could have convinced me we were old friends.  We concentrated on the quiet songs, including T-Bone Burnett’s “I’m Coming Home,” a record David played on, and Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine.” Thanks to whoever yelled out “For Shame of Doing Wrong.”  For the encore, we asked Peter Prescott to shred the last remnants of his vocal cords on the Dream Syndicate’s “Definitely Clean,” and he generously agreed.

Don’t want to get all Dick Clark on you, but Happy New Year all the same.—Ira

Night 7, 12/31/05

One of our enduring memories of 2005 is sure to be taking part in The Scene Is Now‘s first-ever tour, so what better way to usher out the year than with a set from our longtime favorites.  They had lots of surprises, not all of them happy ones—Chris Nelson was battling major throat problems (which I thought lent extra poignance to their as-yet unrecorded gem “The Cold”).  Lianne Smith and Rick Brown joined in on tour highlights “Moonlight Broil” and “Hey, Skinny” respectively, and Amy Rigby sang along on “If Justice Hides,” one of my personal favorites unheard on stage for way too long.  And did they really cover Will Rigby’s “Dave”? You bet they did.

Fred Armisen was up next, demonstrating conclusively that there’s nothing a crowd likes better than audience participation, and that includes following instructions.  Federico Fabrizi had an easier time directing the citizens of Sevalio in After the Fox.  He closed with a moving tribute to Kraftwerk.

At the stroke of midnight, there was a surprise two-song set from Prince and the Revolution: “1999” (always timely) and “When U Were Mine.”

Members of The Scene Is Now joined in throughout our set, notably Greg and Phil adding just the right Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson touches to our cover of Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Steve’s trumpeteering on “Center of Gravity.”  Fred came back to sit in on percussion for the second half of the set.  Rick and Sue did their seasonal favorite “Xmas Trip.”  We did two songs from May I Sing With Me for perhaps the first time since Thursday.  (See if you can spot the continuity error in the photos.)

The Scene Is Now (minus Steve) opened the encore with a terrifying “Let’s Compromise,” recorded by us way back on New Wave Hot Dogs, but written by Information (Chris and Phil’s pre-The Scene Is Now group, which also included Rick, who joined in the carnage as well).  Who could follow that except Wreckless Eric?  He and Amy Rigby helped us salute the Jewish songwriter, with Paul Simon’s “Red Rubber Ball” and a reprise of night one’s “Je T’Aime.”  We closed with our cover of The Scene Is Now’s “Yellow Sarong.”

Like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s getting very near the end.  See you tonight.—Ira

Night 8, 1/1/06

Did you know Lois was suffering from stage fright?  Me neither.  Fortified by copious amounts of Red Bull and Bosco, she turned in a stunning performance, as crushworthy as ever.  I especially swooned when she read my mind and sang “The 2nd Most Beautfiul Girl in the World,” from her very first 7″ (by the group Courtney Love).

The Maxwell’s stage—carpeted and filled with drums and amplifiers—might strike you as an unlikely place for a rollerblading exhibition, but you couldn’t be wronger.  The Fruit Boots, Patrick Borelli and Matt Hall, knocked us out with their trick packs and their insightful tribute to New Jersey.

What’s a celebration of Jewish songwriters without Billy Joel?  It’s an ugly job, but somebody’s got to do it.  Riding to the rescue all the way from “Germany” came A Matter of Trust: Todd Barry on drums, Jon Glaser on bass, Tom Shilue on backup vocals, James on guitar, and Jon Benjamin on lead vocals.

We reprised the opening night one-two punch of “Holiday” and “Eight Day Weekend” to kick things off, located a few more songs from our songbook as-yet unplayed, and finished up with “Eight Days a Week.”  For the encore, we brought back A Matter of Trust for a superstar jam complete with Todd Barry drum solo.  The three of us played our final trio number of the holiday, “Rocks Off,” then invited Lois to sing a few songs.  Accompanied by Bruce Bennett on guitar, we started with the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil weeper “Don’t Make My Baby Blue.”  Exit Bruce, enter WFMU‘s Gaylord Fields and it was time for one more go-round with “Je T’Aime.”  And what a go-round: Gaylord’s candy Gauloises and Lois’s French-English dictionary were truly les props juste.  Lois finished the eight-day week with a beautiful version of “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” complete with a stellar whistling solo courtesy of stellar soundman Mark “Tom” Luecke.  Happy Hanukkah.—Ira

So many thank yous . . .

In this public forum, we’d like to take the opportunity to thank our stage crew, first and foremost Mark Luecke, for eight days and nights of hard work, but also Gil Divine, Jay Miller and Greg Peterson.  Stephen Hunking designed our t-shirts and sweatshirt, and Tannis Root contributed their time to print them.  Karl Heitmueller designed the great New Year’s Eve poster and printed up some extras for us to sell.  Thanks to Jonathan Lethem, Gary Panter, El-P, Small Change, RJD2 and Cornelius for the mixed cd’s.  Volunteering their time to man the merchandise table were Marilyn Kaplan, Emily Hubley, Leila Rosenthal, David Doernberg, Damon Chesse, Tony Gasparro, Laraine Pinnone, Amy Posner, Kelly Reichardt, Neil Kaplan and Andy Schwartz.  Photographs on this page were taken by Max Rosenthal, Leila Rosenthal, Stephen Hunking, Amy Posner, Emily Hubley and Lisa Ackerman.  We were costumed by Amy Posner and Sarah Egan.  Thanks to Todd Abramson and everyone at Maxwell’s.  We had a blast, and we’re really glad it’s over.