Yo La Tengo 2007 Hanukkah Diary

Night 1, 12/4/07

Hanukkah 2007 began at sundown on December 4. Our first show at Maxwell’s began at 8:30 when Versus took the stage. But the gift-giving season started an hour or so earlier for Jon Glaser when he learned that his Detroit Tigers had landed Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, indeed.

Versus were a near-miss for our 2005 holiday lineup, and we were thrilled to have them kick off this year’s festivities. They played a song by OMD, which not only didn’t I recognize, but it was nearly over before I put it together that those initials meant Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Spellcheck be damned, I at least know how to spell the group’s name, even if I can only come up with two of their songs). Who knew they were Jewish? A sucker for the hits, that’s me, so I was particularly taken with the one-two punch of “My Adidas” and “River.” One complaint: Fontaine nearly but didn’t quite tell the joke about two peanuts walking into a bar and one was a salted. Other than that, like John Candy’s Pavarotti before me, I’m a happy guy.

Jon Glaser and Jon Benjamin’s 2005 Hanukkah appearance as the Brothers Italiano provided that year’s theme song, “Whatsa Matta with a Meatball,” and two years later, the very sight of them in the audience was inspiring some people to start singing it all over again, and I’m not talking about Georgia, James or me. Throwing popular demand to the wind, as is their wont, they appeared as Dave Franz and Dave Farina, the sons of Dennises Franz and Farina, and brought the house down with their telling of the story of Hanukkah. Things got a little tense when the topic of circumcision was raised (Dave was for it, while Dave considered it an abomination), though they found common ground over their fatigue (Dave had been up since 5:20 building a fort with his young son, and Dave was still suffering jetlag after arriving on the redeye from Chicago).

At about 10:30, we were coaxed from Maxwell’s luxurious dressing room, and made our way to the stage, resplendent in our finest Mardi Gras regalia, courtesy of our pals Dave and Sarah, throwing beads and chocolate Hanukkah gelt to the audience. Of course in the dark back room, it all fell to the floor, but–try to remember this homily all month–it’s the thought that counts. Our set began with James “Hanukkah Time” McNew’s version of Al “Carnival Time” Johnson‘s classic “It’s Hanukkah/Carnival Time,” complete with Mike, Steve and Jeff on horns. (We were too busy to get their last names!) James Baluyut from Versus withstood the gale-force winds on stage one more time to sit in on “Damage.”

For the encore, we were joined by Kim, who was able to come to Hoboken despite being in the witness relocation program. Bearing a passing resemblance to Jon Glaser, he performed a stirring version of “Autumn Sweater.” Then it was time for Mark Arm, who poured it on for a five-song tribute to the great punk-rock Jewish songwriters: the Circle Jerks (“Operation”), Vom (“Too Animalistic”), the Clash (“What’s My Name”–co-written by Keith Levene, now don’t you feel bad for doubting us?), Van Halen (“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love“) and Kander and Ebb (“Life Is a Cabaret“).

See you tonight. Thanks to Liz for the photos. It’s too late for you to pick up last night’s Matmos mix cd, but who knows what James has planned for tonight? Well, James does, I guess.–Ira

Night 2, 12/5/07

If the holidays are a time for getting together with loved ones, then I can’t think of a better way to start night two of our little shindig than with the Clean. I have a vivid memory of riding toward the Lincoln Tunnel–this is something like 20 years ago– listening for the first time to a pre-recorded cassette of Compilation that a friend thought I’d like, and flipping my lid. Speaking of lids, the Clean’s were topped with black wigs, and had lots to say between songs, much of it profane. They opened strong with “Hold On to the Rail,” “Side On” and a world premiere “Factory Man,” and ended even stronger, with a triple play of classics–“Point That Thing Somewhere Else,” “Tally Ho,” and their Jewish number “Beatnik”–before closing with a gorgeous “Safe in the Rain.”

John Oliver was up next. We had never seen him do standup before. He talked a bit about walking the picket lines (as a Daily Show writer, he’s currently on strike–go Writer’s Guild!) and a lot about world affairs, both current and historical. If I had heard anyone talk about the British Empire so hilariously when I was younger, I’m sure I would have listened a lot more intently. An amazing anecdote about a childhood wardrobe malfunction was such a natural set closer that it was momentarily hard to believe he was still up there. Until he explained that the traditional end of a comedy set bores him, and he’d rather end on an uncomfortable pause–I knew we were going to love this guy. Someone in the audience had a question: Was John Oliver the voice of the Geico Gecko? That’s the way you end a comedy set. And the answer is no. (I’m pretty sure it’s Noel Gallagher.)

We started with “Green Arrow” and our holiday version of the Gary U.S. Bonds/Heartbreakers classic “Eight Day Weekend.” Hamish Kilgour joined us for the set-ending trio of “Deeper Into Movies,” “Big Day Coming” and “Little Honda.” During the encore, we were joined by David Kilgour, Robert Scott, and visiting dignitary Mac McCaughan. We did a few Jewish numbers (“Blitzkrieg Bop” and T.Rex’s “Solid Gold Easy Action”) and a couple of our favorite David songs (“Seemingly Stranded” and the Dovers’ “What Am I Going to Do,” as covered so poignantly by David and Martin Phillipps with the Pop Art Toasters.)

A delightful evening, we hope you’ll agree. See you tonight.–Ira

Night 3, 12/6/07

I’ve said it before, and I said it onstage last night, and I’m saying it again: Without the dB’s, it’s unlikely there would be Yo La Tengo. I’ll save the many reasons for the Director’s Cut of this diary, but suffice to say that sharing a stage with them on Thursday night was exciting and emotional beyond reason. Back to the classic quartet for the first time since their comeback shows, they opened with “We Were Happy There” from Repercussion. What followed was incredible. Some of the hits, of course–“Amplifier,” “Neverland,” “Love Is for Lovers,” “Dynamite,” “Big Brown Eyes” . . . who am I kidding, all their songs are hits in my book. And a selection of oddities– “Soul Kiss”! “You Got It Wrong”! “Christmas Time” revised to “Hanukkah Time”! “Excitement”!–that had me choked up from start to finish. They’ll be at Southpaw tonight, and so would I if I weren’t otherwise occupied.

In addition to being hilarious, so far the comedians this year have been exceptionally informative. In the wake of John Oliver’s history lessons, Eugene Mirman offered more in the way of helpful hints (although as on Tuesday night, the story of Hanukkah was recounted–I did notice a few discrepancies between Eugene’s version and that of Dave Franz and Dave Farina). Apparently–and I had no idea–when a bear attacks you, you shouldn’t play dead. If a bear attacks you in San Francisco, so much the better, you can just run downhill. It wasn’t all how-to stuff: Eugene also offered the harrowing tale of having the gas to his stove cut off.

We started our set with “Nuclear War,” and then went right into “Five-Cornered Drone,” produced on record by Gene Holder. We reprised “Mr. Tough” from night one, and when we got to the line about Todd-o-phonic time, a cheer went up from Todd-o-phonic’s many fans in attendance, a number that was swelling with each minute that his fab mix cd played. Gene joined us on guitar for “Cast a Shadow” (which he also produced), and along with Chris on organ and Will Rigby on drums for “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Chris played guitar on “No Water,” just like he did on New Wave Hot Dogs. Peter Holsapple had to go home, so tour manager extraordinaire Joe put down his cricket bat and played Ace Tone on “I Heard You Looking.”

For the encore, Chris came back for our tribute to A Question of Temperature/V.O.T.E, the record we back him on. We could have done “Shapes of Things,” but it wasn’t written by a Jew, so we did “Heart Full of Soul” instead. Will sang “The Question,” from his classic Egon lp Sidekick Phenomenon. Then it was time for our surprise guest Jim James. He totally killed on “Solitary Man,” “Secret Agent Man” and the show-stopping (quite literally–it was the last song) “Hard Luck Woman.”

This is exactly what Adam Sandler meant when he named that movie Eight Crazy Nights. — Ira

Night 4, 12/7/07

Speaking of the dB’s, the first time I ever saw Chris Stamey perform (and possibly Will Rigby, though I’m not positive about that) was in Alex Chilton’s band. It seems they don’t loom as large in the histories of the era as others, but for me Alex Chilton and the Cossacks were right up there with Television in the can’t-miss department. We were blown away to have him join us for night four’s encore.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First up were Endless Boogie. Careful readers of this diary may have detected a lack of complaining. Anyone who knows me knows me as a glass-half-full kind of guy. But I’ve got to lower the boom on Endless Boogie. Like Homer Simpson, I hate being lied to in song, and “Endless” Boogie actually played three songs during their 45 minutes. Where’s that at? OK, I’ll concede that all three were monstrous heavy grooves with the excess in all the right places. It pained me to miss a portion of their fantastic set, but a menorah emergency claimed some of my time.

It should come as no surprise that we at Yo La Tengo inc. are lovers of tradition, and one of our favorites is Todd Barry making fun of our charities. Tonight we were supporting the work of the Ponderosa Stomp, who are doing incredible work bringing America’s all too secret musical history to light. Or as Todd put it succinctly–“I’m doing a concert for free, so other people can get paid to play a concert.” (I put that in quotes for dramatic purposes, but it’s more of a paraphrase.) He was hilarious . . . and he has lovely hazel eyes.

“Detouring America with Horns” and “Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop” were among the rarely called numbers in tonight’s set. Jesper Eklow from Endless Boogie joined us at the end for our version of Roky Erickson’s version of “Heroin.” We closed with Big Star’s “Take Care.”

We took the stage for the encore with Alex. Correction, we thought we took the stage for the encore with Alex, but it turned out he was running a little late. We killed time effortlessly–truly, I doubt anyone guessed that anything was amiss. And then Alex arrived. We started with the Skeeter Davis by way of Carole King number “Let Me Get Close to You,” followed by the Kinks’ “Till the End of the Day,” which you’ll remember from such compact discs as Sister Lovers. Next, we brought up Tammy Lynn, a powerhouse singer that we were introduced to through the Ponderosa Stomp. We took a stab at “Time Is on My Side”–if Alex had played that song before, and I don’t know that he had, he was the only one on stage who had. We did “Femme Fatale” and “Hey! Little Child,” and then brought Todd Barry up–another fine Hanukkah tradition–to play drums on the finale of “Jeepster.”

Thanks again to Liz for all the photos. Halfway home. — Ira

Night 5, 12/8/07

Counting among our most proud and most disappointing Hanukkah memories simultaneously has to be the Hypnolovewheel reunion we arranged in 2001, or as it’s known in these parts: the year Hanukkah broke. Proud because Hypnolovewheel were one of our favorite bands and it was thrilling to hear them play those great songs again. And disappointing because who among us didn’t think that they were going to look at each other, offer a collective “Pins and needles, needles and pins, it’s a happy man that grins. Now what am I mad about?” and make the reunion permanent? It didn’t quite work out that way. Never let it be said that we of the Yo La Tengo are not forgiving, because a mere six years later, we invited Stephen “I Dream of Jeannie” Hunking to open night five with his new group Dew Claw, featuring original Yo La Tengo bassist Dave Rick on guitar. Dew Claw have a couple of fine records out on the Geodesic label, but nothing that would have suggested their keen eye for fashion. With a front line clad in pajamas, they rocked the back room and we were the better people for it by the set’s conclusion.

After a delicate four-year negotiation, we were finally able to convince Sarah Vowell to make an appearance. Perhaps she was waiting for a year in which the comedy slot was so educational. She fit right in with what I’m going to go way out on a limb and say was the most entertaining story we’re ever likely to hear about a cartographer, the sad (albeit in a hilarious way) saga of Charles Preuss.

Our lucky star was shining last night. Day two of our menorah debacle was clearly straining our Jewish cred, but fortunately my Aunt Judith picked that night to make an appearance to share with us some of her Kabbalah studies. It’s funny what a difference context makes. it had never occurred to me until I got back to the Maxwell’s bleachers and looked at the stage how much my Aunt Judith resembles Amy Poehler, if only Amy Poehler owned a wig.

Our set featured the usual shenanigans–a few songs we almost never play, some old favorites, and a seeming eternity when one of my guitar cables stopped working, only to mysteriously fix itself. We brought Dave Rick on to play our first single, “The River of Water,” then put Stephen Hunking in the back of the station wagon, and drove through the Midtown Tunnel for a two-song Jewish tribute. First it was Carole King’s “Sometime in the Morning,” sung by Stephen, followed by Blue Oyster Cult’s “E.T.I.,” sung by James, with monster guitar solos by Dave.

Alex Chilton was willing to come back for a second night of special guesthood, and we were thrilled to have him. We reprised “Femme Fatale,” “Let Me Get Close to You” and “Hey! Little Child” from Friday night, and worked up Brenton Wood’s “Oogum Boogum,” (as heard on Alex’s Set cd), an old Cossacks favorite, the Modern Lovers’ “Government Center,” longtime staple of Big Star’s repertoire T.Rex’s “Baby Strange,” and went back to Alex’s Like Flies on Sherbert record for the Bell Notes’ “I’ve Had It.” We even taught him a few words of Hebrew.

This is exactly what Dick Van Patten meant when he named that tv show Eight Is Enough. — Ira

Night 6, 12/9/07

This diary stuff’s a weighty responsibility. Did Anais Nin ever skip a day? Well, if so, all I can say is: take this, spy in the house of love. I’m back with another report. Night six got off to a rousing start when our pal Liz, who has already done so much for us this holiday season with her nightly photographs, succeeded where the combined efforts of Teams Yo La Tengo and Maxwell’s failed, and scored a replacement electric menorah. That’s a relief–we were skating on some thin ice, Hanukkahly speaking.

I almost plotzed when Redd Kross agreed to fly out here just to play Hanukkah. Almost as quickly as they agreed, it looked like they might have to bail. Guitarist Robert Hecker (“the only Scientologist in the group,” as Jeff McDonald introduced him last night. “That’s SCIENTIST,” Robert corrected him) has a teaching job that makes missing work very problematic, but when it turned out that Robert was willing to take the first flight home Monday morning and go straight to work, Redd Kross were back in. Thank you Robert and thank you Redd Kross! Man, what a show. They opened with two songs from their first ep (“Cover Band” being a seasonal selection, written by Greg Hetson), then “Linda Blair” from Born Innocent, and they never let up. They took Georgia’s requests for “Heaven Only Knows” (by the Jewish songwriting team of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich) and “Look On Up at the Bottom” and pulled off a two-song Jewish tribute that was equal parts unlikely and incredible with songs by Anna Waronker and Peaches. And so much more.

Heather Lawless‘s comedy is like no one else’s, a stream of consciousness high-wire act of the sweetest self-laceration you’ll ever hear. There are barely any jokes per se. It’s just amazing to witness, and we were so glad to have her join our little cavalcade of whimsy.

It took us to night six to break out “Eight Days a Week,” which seemed an appropriate way to say hi to Redd Kross, who number Beatles interpreters supreme among their talents. Our weeklong revisiting of May I Sing with Me settled on “Out the Window” and I experimented with the concept of “Drug Test” played on a guitar with all six strings out of tune.

Redd Kross en masse joined us for the encore. We bid a fond adieu to Alex Chilton with “September Gurls” and then moved on to the wild world of the Jewish songwriter:
“Bus Stop,” “Who Loves the Sun” and finally “Calling Dr. Love.” I could have listened to Roy McDonald and Georgia play extended drum fills all night, but we had one more guest to bring up. In 2005, my mom concluded night one by singing “My Little Corner of the World” with us, as chronicled in that year’s Hanukkah diary. Sadly there was no photographic evidence of her appearance, which I thought was too bad, but qualified as circumstances beyond our control. My mom saw it another way, demanding another turn in the spotlight, and this time we’d better have photographers at the ready. She didn’t have to get all huffy about it–we wouldn’t have dreamt of not inviting her back.

Once again, she killed, and we all went home happy. — Ira

Night 7, 12/10/07

I wouldn’t say that we are limping to the finish line, no way. But the menorah situation is–there’s no other word for it–a disaster. Our just out of the box, brand spanking new model gave us 25 solid hours of electric candle action before bulb seven gave up the ghost. I can’t claim to know that much about Judaism, so someone else is going to have to answer this theological query: Is it possible we are rocking Hanukkah too hard?

A few weeks ago we were at the David Kilgour/Euros Childs show at Union Hall, where we saw Carl Newman in the audience. That gave us a terrific idea–let’s ask Carl to join our Hanukkah hit parade and do one of his rare solo shows. Carl had a better idea–why not bring the entire New Pornagaphers? And so that’s what he did, to open night seven. Things were going along just great, until they pulled ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” out of nowhere, and then things went along even greater. These days the New Pornagraphers have a schedule busy enough to rival ours. Ten minutes after they left the stage they had vanished into the night. We barely got a chance to say thanks.

It was quite the coup we scored getting top comedian Peanut Butter to do a set. But I have to be honest–his timing seemed a bit off. More than a few times, he finished a joke, only to back up to add a key part of the setup. And he did tell the one about the flat tire at least twice, which was weird. Luckily, a hilarious member of our audience came to his rescue, throwing one piece of scintillating repartee after another toward the stage. Seriously, what are people thinking when they do stuff like that? “I’m making the evening better?” You’re not. “I bet I can be the most annoying person in the room?” Next time, we’d be willing to take that on faith. But ultimately what heckler could bear up under the relentless one-two punch of Peanut Butter’s twin catch phrases: “Smooth . . . peanut butter” and “chunky . . . peanut butter.” Only one thing was bothering me–I kept thinking that Peanut Butter looked just like someone else, and it was driving me crazy trying to remember who. Then it hit me: Vin Diesel’s brother Leonard.

We roared out of the gate with the Black Flag classic, “Dreidel Party,” and played a whole bunch of songs we hadn’t tried yet this week, including “Magnet” and “Saturday” with guest percussionist Jon Wurster. Tonight was also the night for our annual version of “Mushroom Cloud of HIss.”

For the encore, we brought out our old pal Bruce Bennett to play guitar with our new pal, the amazing Roy Loney, original lead singer of one of our favorite bands ever, the Flamin’ Groovies. When we heard Roy was coming to town to play the Norton holiday spectacular, we thought wouldn’t it be great if we could get him to come out a day or two earlier and play with him too. We started with “Have You Seen My Baby,” by noted Jewish songwriter (Academy Award winning Jewish songwriter, Roy helpfully added) Randy Newman–of the storied musical family: Alfred, Lionel, Carl–as heard on the classic Groovies lp Teenage Head. Then two more from that record–“High Flyin’ Baby” and the title tune–before closing with a “Slow Death” that was, at the risk of immodesty, quite nice.

Shame about the menorah, though. — Ira

Night 8, 12/11/07

Put a fork in us, we’re through! To get to the finish line we had to channel teachings from the solo careers of all four Beatles: “It Don’t Come Easy,” “All Things Must Pass,” Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” And now that it’s done, it’s the words of the Dave Clark 5 that leap to mind: “Glad All Over.” Glad that it’s all over, for sure. But mostly glad all over to have had such an incredible eight nights.

With all nine lights ablaze on the menorah, the last night began with the second half of our tribute to Matador Records as recent signing Times New Viking roared to the stage. One of our best memories of 2007 is being introduced to these guys, and touring the midwest and northeast with them. So it was especially meaningful for us to have them on board for our last show of the year. They pulled out a couple of new songs and closed with their cover of Half Japanese’s “Thing with a Hook.” Love that band.

We were able to bring back an old Hanukkah tradition when David Cross took the stage for “Ask a Rabbi” for the first time since 2002. As Joni Mitchell teaches us, life’s a circle, and in a very real sense, our Hanukkah series ended as it began, as the practice of circumcision proved no less of a hot potato for Rabbi Alvin Silverman than it did on night one for Dave Franz. Or was that Dave Farina? A wistful moment came when the rabbi expressed an unmistakable desire to find out what his corn chowder would taste like with a little bacon.

Our set began with our shout-out to our adopted home, “Night Falls on Hoboken,” followed by one more romp through “Eight Day Weekend.” “The Cone of Silence” fooled everyone by worming its way onto the setlist, and we closed with the holiday’s lone version of “Blue Line Swinger” and “Love Power” from the soundtrack of The Producers (the real one). “That’s our Hanukkah” cried James at its conclusion.

But we weren’t done yet. We brought Beth from Times New Viking up to play a little piano (at least she thinks she was playing piano–seated in front of my guitar amp, she couldn’t hear anything but me) as we did one more shout-out to our adopted home: “Hungry Heart.” As the second verse began, Howard Kaylan (aka Eddie of Flo & Eddie–and noted Yo La Tengo fan!) took the stage to sing backup, just as he did on The River. Thus began a thrilling six-song spin through the amazing career of Howard Kaylan. We did the Turtles classic “You Baby” (written by the Jewish songwriting team of Sloan and Barri), the pre-Turtles Crossfires’ “One Potato Two Potato” (which 20 lucky attendees of Thursday’s show picked up on Todd-o-phonic Todd’s mix cd), “Love Songs in the Night” from Howard’s supercool solo record Dust Bunnies (another Jewish number, this time from the pen of the legendary Michael Brown), followed by one last seasonal number, T.Rex’s “Metal Guru,” sung by James, with Howard adding the iconic backup part just as he & Flo did on the original. For our last donut choice, we went back to the Turtles songbook for “She’d Rather Be with Me.” If there was a dry eye in the house, it wasn’t mine.

What an amazing way to end an amazing eight days. — Ira

So many thank yous . . .

In this public forum, we’d like to take the opportunity to thank our crew, Joe Puleo, Mark Luecke and Gil Divine for eight days and nights of hard work. Suzanne Despres and Brian Gempp helped us in too many ways to enumerate. Stephen Hunking designed our t-shirts, and Tannis Root contributed their time to print them. Karl Heitmueller designed the great poster. Thanks to Matmos, David Cross, Todd-o-phonic Todd, Eye, and Yoshitomo Nara for the mixed cd’s. Almost all the photographs on this page were taken by Liz Clayton, but Lee Greenfeld and Leila Rosenthal also did some lensing. Jesper Eklow loaned us an amp. We were costumed by David Doernberg and Sara Parks. And a giant tip of the yarmulke to Todd Abramson and everyone at Maxwell’s.