Yo La Tengo 2008 Hanukkah Diary

Night 1, 12/21/08

At 8:30, Oneida took the stage of Maxwell’s, resplendent — a word I rarely call on — in maroon sports jackets and amazing one-chord pummel. OK, they changed chords occasionally, but I’m going to have to insist on maroon. I won’t pretend I wasn’t somewhat concerned about their grasp of the holiday (wondering in the process if I was wrong about the name Baby Hanoi Jane connoting Jewishness) when they hit us with Mott the Hoople’s “Death May Be Your Santa Claus,” and a new original called “Supersonic Santa.” But their seasonal bona fides were demonstrated with an FCC-friendly version of Jonathan Richman’s “She Cracked” and their [popup url=”https://yolatengo.com/ylt/duvall.png” width=”587″]transplendent[/popup] set closer, “Hanukkah, Bitch” (containing the couplet: “This ain’t the season of the witch/ It’s Hannukah, bitch” — to which we offer a hearty amen).

supersonic oneida

We’ve been Paul F. Tompkins fans for as long as we’ve been Mr. Show fans, so it was a thrill to finally get him to take part in our Hanukkah shenanigans. He too had Christmas on his mind, but having told us about his 12 years of Catholic school, we couldn’t begrudge him that. Especially when it took the form of vivisecting his least favorite Xmas song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” He closed his set by recounting the most amusing moments of his mother’s funeral — a pitch-perfect example of stand-up simultaneously hilarious and moving. In a packed rock club. Remarkable.

We played night one as a quartet, accompanied by the great Janet Weiss on drums. Played a few seasonal numbers (“Eight-Day Weekend” and Barry/Greenwich’s “Heaven Only Knows”) and located New Wave Hot Dogs‘s “House Fall Down” in the section of our repertoire labeled Songs We Haven’t Played in 15 Years. A recent recon mission revealed that Blue Oyster Cult no longer do that bit where they all play guitar at once. So as long as that move was available, we snagged it for ourselves, with Georgia and Janet both axing it up during “Little Honda.”

todd barry was wrong

We asked Paul F. Tompkins if he had a Jewish song he’d like to sing with us, and he suggested “Ring of Fire.” The conflict between our desires to be accommodating hosts and to stick to the format were resolved when Paul promised to Jew it up a bit. He added a verse and chorus telling the story of Hanukkah, and Janet on the digital trombone was a holiday miracle of sorts.

welcome to hoboken

We ended the show with Mr. Britt Daniel on hand to sing some Jewish-penned favorites. “Public Image“! “Mother and Child Reunion,” the impact of which might’ve been blunted when some dullard started the song in the wrong key. A powerhouse “Me and Mr. Jones,” and a tear-jerking of “This Guy’s in Love With You” brought the evening to a most glorious close, if I say so myself.

me and mr. daniel

Tonight’s proceeds went to The Jubilee Center of Hoboken, as suggested by Matt from New York

Night 2, 12/22/08

Eight nights of gala entertainment don’t just grow on Hanukkah bushes. For months, we ask performers far and wide if they’d consider taking part, irrespective of the unlikelihood of a “yes.” In the process, we acquire quite the collection of nicely-worded no’s — though it’s true, not everybody takes the time to reply. And then out of the blue comes a response like the one from the Magnetic Fields, and the next thing you know they’re taking the stage at Maxwell’s. Squeezing an upright piano amongst our bric-a-brac meant that Stephin Merritt was positioned all the way on stage left, obscured for many by the p.a. column (and for many others by what one observer termed the “tallest audience in history”). They played a gorgeous set to a pin-drop quiet audience (the only interruption came when the back bar beer cooler spontaneously combusted). Might be hard for others to pick a favorite number, but not for me: I’m going with the old Sixths selection, “Movies in My Head,” as sung by the original Wasps’ Nests vocalist, Georgia Hubley.

For the second night in a row, the comedy set zeroed in on holiday music. In fact, John Hodgman even claimed to be wearing the suit that Paul F. Tompkins left behind Sunday night, as he exposed the dirty (and I do mean dirty) secret of sexy Christmas songs. Not satisfied to enumerate “Christmas Is Coming” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Sana Claus,” he whipped out a ukulele and closed with a version of Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” Suffice to say, one can expect a spike in the local birth rate nine months from today.

alcoholic eggs

We took advantage of the real live piano by opening with the alternate version of “The Weakest Part” and inviting Claudia Gonson and Sam Davol to sit in while Georgia tinkled the ebonies and ivories on “Don’t Have to Be So Sad.” If you’re scoring at home, we did “Guess I’m Falling in Love” (one from Column Jewish Songwriter) and “Five-Cornered Drone” (one from Column Rarely Played).

Stephin Merritt graciously agreed to take part in the encore, despite his ear woes. His only request was that he be accompanied by just one of us, and that the accompaniment be extra sloppy. I’m no doctor, but I was happy to comply on a way off the cuff version of Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Next we invited Doug Gillard to join us for a few tunes, starting with a surprise second Tin Pan Alley number, the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day.” Graham Gouldman’s “No Milk Today” followed, complete with Doug on official nylon-string guitar intro! And then it was the Dictators’ “Next Big Thing.” Did it really take us six Hanukkahs to do this one?

be careful, it's my ear

happy birthday, doug!

We try not to repeat ourselves from year to year, but there are some performers that are simply unstoppable. And so, for the third consecutive Hanukkah, we ended one of the nights with my mom singing “My Little Corner of the World.” It is this completely unbiased chronicler’s opinion that she knocked it out of the park. Not only that, she’s the only participant who can definitively tell us the correct way to light the menorah.


The night’s proceeds were split between Burma Border Projects of Worcester, MA, as suggested by Paul from Brooklyn, and the Burmese Refugee Project of New York NY, as proposed by Celina from Brooklyn. Additionally, in my haste to appease some impatient members of the on-line community, I neglected to mention our third annual collection of mix cd’s, put together by James. Opening night’s was compiled by Aesop Rock and night two’s was by Steve Shelley. Nor did I thank Liz Clayton for all the photos. Thanks, Liz!! See you tonight!

Night 3, 12/23/08

If you love Steve Coogan even half as much as we do, then you’ll know why we spent the hour from 7:30 to 8:30 updating each other “they’ve reached the Chiswick roundabout,” as our designated driver Brian — John Zorn and a string-changing Marc Ribot in tow — re-enacted Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge‘s attempt to have Roger Moore as a guest. But in true modern Hollywood fashion, our remake had a happier ending. Roger Moore may have been stuck in transit from Heathrow so long that he missed the show entirely; Zorn and Ribot, on the other hand, arrived from their Lower East Side to Maxwell’s jaunt just a few minutes late (that’s a guess — I was too nervous to actually consult a timepiece), and shortly thereafter were blowing our minds with improv highwire. And then they were gone, just like that. Poof.

Slovin & Allen were next, hopeful that it would go better than the last time they followed John Zorn. Though inexplicably light on Christmas material, they were no less informative than John Hodgman was the night before. Slovin & Allen have recently immersed themselves in the written works of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and read some illuminating excerpts from those books. They concluded their set with one of the most astonishing pieces of comedy I’ve ever witnessed–a breathtakingly choreographed and heart-stoppingly hilarious bit about coping with tragedy and comedy’s role in that, specifically September 11th. . . . And the Hindenburg.

We invited Smokey Hormel to sit in with us, and opened the set with a selection from the score we did together for Old Joy, previously unplayed live. I thought “Don’t Say a Word” came out especially well, with Smokey’s gorgeous slide work an excellent complement to Georgia’s singing. On the other end of the sonic spectrum, we took “Out the Window” for a spin, and played “I Heard You Looking” for the first time this week, with Why?‘s Yoni Wolf on organ. The Jewish favorites were “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (like us, Smokey contributed to the I’m Not There soundtrack), Neil Diamond by way of the Monkees’ “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” (Smokey can also be heard on Neil’s American Recordings sessions), and a tribute to the late Robert Mulligan with the Dictators’ “Stay With Me” (we’ll let you puzzle that one out).

The concert was for the benefit of Seacology, out of Berkeley, California, and thanks to Emily from Maplewood for the idea. The mix CD was courtesy of WFMU‘s Gaylord Fields. Liz took most of the photos. Unfortunately she got in over her head with on-line poker during the Zorn/Ribot set, but Stephen Hunking was able to provide a couple of action shots, just to prove that it really existed. See you tonight.

Night 4, 12/24/08

Performers differ when it comes to preparation. The band prayer skyrocketed in popularity around the time of Truth or Dare. While on tour with Why?, we always knew they were about to go on when we heard (Tuesday night’s guest) Yoni Wolf singing Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire.” And then there’s Jennifer O’Connor, who spent a contemplative three hours in Holland Tunnel traffic. That would leave me useless, but hey whatever works. She turned in an exquisite set to open night 4 and, not to peek too far behind the curtain, I think she was able to summon up an extra dollop of poignancy when she needed it by recalling that jerk who wouldn’t alternate merge. Beautiful version of Carole King’s internationallybeloved classic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”!

It’s the season of giving, and so it didn’t seem completely inappropriate for North Jersey Prilosec salesman Mark Levinsky (aka Jon Benjamin) to be flinging free samples into the audience. In the process we learned a few things about heartburn, which I guess falls loosely into the category of useful information, and about how Levinsky became a father, which I’m pretty sure everybody in the audience is trying to forget as fast as possible.

Jon Glaser was unfortunately sick in bed and couldn’t make it. But he did send a letter for Jon Benjamin to read, accompanied by a photo and a six-foot sub (which turned out to be one foot, but we’ll blame that one on Blimpie’s). It’s the thought that counts, but I will confess to not expecting the references to the audience as “dumb fucks,” “dickheads” and “fucking losers.” We’ll chalk it up to just how bad he’s feeling, and hope for a speedy recovery.

For the first and maybe last time this Hanukkah, we played as a trio from start to finish. Opened with the quiet version of “Big Day Coming,” featuring Georgia jamming on the guitar. We played a let’s-see-if-we-remember trifecta with “Tiny Birds,” “Paul Is Dead” and “Shadows,” and saluted the night’s mix cd compiler Russell Mael with a cover of Sparks’ “Angst in My Pants.” Inspired by Jennifer O’Connor, we too played a Carole King number, “I Gotta Dream On,” which on further review turns out not to be a Carole King composition at all! Was written by Gary Gordon, something of a mystery man on the internet, so we’ll just take it on faith he’s Jewish too and leave it at that. Took a couple of requests for “Detouring America With Horns” and “Cherry Chapstick,” the latter of which we audibled into a quiet version, and then closed by coming full circle: Georgia singing about “jamming on a guitar” on Jan Terri’s barn-burning “Rock N Roll Santa.”

Thanks to John from Portland, Oregon who suggested that Mercy Corps be the night’s charity. This post may be conspicuously photo shy when you see it. Liz is back home in Indiana, and Stephen couldn’t make it last night, either. We entrusted the job to a teenaged volunteer who sadly didn’t approach the sending of the photos with the same gusto she has for text messaging. We’ll add them when they arrive. See you tonight!

Night 5, 12/25/08

Twenty-four years and twenty-three days after we first shared the Maxwell’s stage (our very first show), Antietam opened night 5 in stellar fashion, and you know I’m not just saying that because I was helping out on piano and organ. They mostly played songs from the amazing Opus Mixtum, but also managed to touch all the holiday bases with guest singer James dueting with Tara on “Christmas Never Comes (When You’re Alone),” which Josh wrote for Tralala, followed by Graham Gouldman’s “For Your Love,” with both Georgia and James on percussion (and me on faux harpsichord). A knockout “Stowaway” left everybody flat on their backs, in most cases metaphorically.

Fred Armisen appeared as singer-songwrtiter Joshua Rainhorn, and performed a number on piano catchy enough that he had the audience singing along with its “wine and cigarettes” chorus in no time. If you’re like me, you went straight to the bookstore to look for that Kierkegaard novel he referenced during the verse.

If Fred’s segment felt a little short, maybe he was conserving his energy, because he played the whole set with us, mostly on percussion, but also on guitar for “Little Eyes” and “Black Flowers.” He also split the singing with James on the latter song; in fact we came up with that arrangement only by Fred’s request. Somehow he even found the time, alleges one observer, to send a text message (although the photographic evidence provided is unfortunately Zapruder-like in its inconclusiveness). Like Antietam, our special material spanned the holiday spectrum: We opened with Big Star’s “Jesus Christ,” and played Sloan and Barri’s “Things I Should Have Said” and Carole King (this time for sure!) and Gerry Goffin’s “Take a Giant Step.” Tara played guitar on “Demons,” as she did when we recorded it for the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack, and “Deeper Into Movies.” Josh sat in (literally) on an ultrapercussive “Nuclear War.”

For the encore, we coaxed Cyril Jordan all the way from San Francisco to Hoboken to play a short set of Flamin’ Groovies songs. Georgia has been overheard calling the Flamin’ Groovies her favorite band ever, and I’ve learned the hard way not to argue with Georgia. We opened with “You Tore Me Down,” went back to the Teenage Head record for Jewish songwriter Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby,” and finished up with the 1-2-3 punch of “I Can’t Hide,” “Slow Death” and “Shake Some Action.” As Moby Grape put it so eloquently: pow pow pow.

note Gil

Thanks to Dawn and Max for tonight’s pictures, and to Leila for last night’s. The night’s proceeds were split between two New York City groups: New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), as suggested by Raquel from Jackson Heights and NYLAG’s Justice at Work Project, proposed by Elena from Queens. The mix cd was compiled by Georgia, who says that Fred was not texting, but consulting his notes about the next song.

Night 6, 12/26/08

Having Lambchop on hand to open night 6 was like having a holiday family reunion, minus the drama. There are multiple reasons why we’ve made record after record in Nashville, and one of them is certainly the chance to eat hot chicken with those guys. Their set was gorgeous, mixing songs from OH (ohio) with a few covers, some more aptly chosen (Bob Dylan’s “You’re a Big Girl Now”) than others (Kurt’s What State Is Hoboken In topical shoutout to Caroline with the Wedding Present’s “Kennedy”). Were it not for the music stand in front of him, you would never have guessed that James was a fill-in on bass.

We were very excited to have the one, the only Marky Ramone on hand last night. Though by his own admission no standup comedian, he wowed us with a bawdy joke about a trip to Manny’s, before turning serious and offering a prayer to the man upstairs, a prayer that did take a number of curious digressions into Ramones historical trivia. He followed that by reading an excerpt from his writing, not from his autobiography Hey Ho Let’s A Drummer’s Life, but from his erotic novel Lady Wainsworth’s Desires (to be published next Valentine’s Day by Scribner’s). He concluded his appearance with a mini-drum clinic, inviting “the guy from Yellow Tango” on stage. Only momentarily nonplussed to discover the guy was in fact Georgia, they played short excerpts of “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” and “Blitzkreig Bop.” Marky had just enough time to hit on Georgia before splitting to his car, where his wife was waiting.

We opened night 5 by — there is no other word for it — crucifying “Jesus Christ,” so started night 6 seeking redemption, and besides it gave us the opportunity to sing “Jesus Christ was born yesterday,” which I’ll bet is going to have Alex Chilton wishing he thought of that line when he hears about it. With William Tyler of Lambchop helping out, we did a mess of songs we hadn’t tried yet this year: “Did I Tell You,” “Song for Mahila,” “My Heart’s Reflection” and “Moby Octopad,” maybe a few more. Next we brought up Marky Ramone to play the Ramones’ “Babysitter” and Richard Hell’s “The Kid With the Replaceable Head” (Marky was a Voidoid too). Did we really forget to do a Misfits song? Afraid so. Closed with Roky Erickson’s version of “Heroin.”

Eight nights of Hanukkah would not be enough time for us to play all our favorite Flamin’ Groovies songs — that’s more of a job for Lent. So there was no way we were going to send Cyril Jordan back to San Francisco without an encore. We reprised “You Tore Me Down” and “Shake Some Action” from the night before, and added Dylan by way of the Groovies’ “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” “Second Cousin” and “Dog Meat.”

We donated the night’s proceeds to Zumix in Boston, as suggested by Jane from NYC. Dawn and Stephen took the photos. And James pulled triple duty: he made the cd, too! The end is in sight. As Homer Simpson said as he jumped Springfield Gorge: “This is the greatest feeling in the world!”

Night 7, 12/27/08

At some point during the planning stages of some Hanukkah, our pal Phil Milstein took a break from posing baseball and pop culture trivia questions to suggest we bring Willie Alexander to Hoboken to perform. It was hard to believe we had never thought of that before, but that’s why you have friends. It didn’t work out for whatever that year was, but last night there was not just Willie Alexander, but Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, all original members (well, don’t know that for sure, but all of these guys) on stage at Maxwell’s, opening night 7. No clue when the last time he’d played the area was, could easily have been decades ago, but time has not made his music any more describable (and believe me, we were trying, long into the night). He did some of the classics (“Hit Her Wid De Axe” and “Dirty Eddie“), but not all the classics (no “Mass. Ave.,” no “Kerouac”), and some I didn’t know. If I had a nickel for every time I heard John Cameron Swayze mentioned in a rock song, I’d have a nickel, and I’d have pocketed it last night.

Whenever his busy schedule will permit it, we love to get Rabbi Alan Sugarman join us for his popular segment Ask a Rabbi. This year’s edition had a particular tension, falling as it did in the midst of the escalated fighting in the Middle East (which, to give you an idea of the bubble we occupy during these shows, we did not even know about until the rabbi started talking of it). Nevertheless the rabbi maintained his trademark good humor, correcting misconceptions about Judaism (actually invented in the 18th century, it turns out) and explaining why we love Chinese food so much (we don’t — it’s the Chinese themselves we’re fond of, for taking over the Jews’ hated immigrant status). The rabbi’s concluding remarks about the power of faith even amidst its seeming absurdities struck a surprisingly and appropriately (under the circumstances) somber chord.

We started our set with a reprise of “Sugarcube” (from night one) and then brought on David Mansfield to play the remainder of the set. We played a slew of quiet numbers, David adding preposterously amazing pedal steel to “The Cone of Silence” and “One PM Again.” “Let’s Be Still” was called for the first time in years, rearranged on the spot with both Georgia and me on keyboards. The Jewish songbook selections were “She May Call You Up Tonight” by Michael Brown and “Off and Running” by Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager, from the fab soundtrack to To Sir With Love. We turned up the volume for the end of the set, with David adding satisfyingly ferocious violin to “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss.”

We returned to the stage as a trio, to play the Customs/Lyres classic “Long Gone,” which we went to the trouble of learning before realizing that Peter Greenberg didn’t write it. (Gil Divine sat in on flashlight when my lyrics proved unreadable.) Then we invited David back, accompanied by Willie Alexander. Figuring that the only thing better than one Michael Brown song was two, we cajoled Willie into singing “Walk Away Renee,” as heard on The Boston Incest Album, for what turns out to be the first time since he recorded it. He expressed some trepidation, but it sounded amazing to me. Then we went back to his ’60s group, The Lost, for “Maybe More Than You,” suggested by Todd-o-phonic Todd. It was hard to believe we hadn’t thought of that before, but that’s why you have friends. We bid a fond farewell to David, and finished up Willie’s encore with his arrangement of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” There’s a special feeling that comes from playing a song you’ve heard on record for 25 years with the guy who made that record, and I hope you all get to experience that at one time or another.

To close the show, we brought David Cross back on stage. Figuring the only thing better than one song from the To Sir With Love soundtrack was two, he sent us home with a tear in our collective eye with his tender version of the title song.

The charity for the night was the Community Partnership School of Philadelphia , as suggested by Joseph from Philadelphia. Stephen took the pictures. It was my turn in the mix cd hot seat. Final countdown, baby!

Night 8, 12/28/08

I hold in my hand the final Hanukkah recap. At 8 pm, Joe Puleo added the final touch to his Larry King menorah, and at the stroke of 8:30, Zooey Deschanel‘s mix cd was turned off. Metal Mountains took the stage to perform a mesmerizing set, all of which we hope to hear on their forthcoming release on Amish. Helen kept apologizing for one thing or another — none of which discernible to this listener. In fact, the only thing she left out was the one thing we were upset about: We had no idea they were going to be so punctual, and as a result missed the beginning of their show!

It wouldn’t be Hanukkah without an appearance by Todd Barry, and it was most certainly Hanukkah. Todd congratulated the audience on winning the lottery by getting to see him (because no one knows who’s going to play when they purchase their tickets), and then turned in a hilarious set of material, both old and new. And when we say new, we mean it: an anecdote told at dinner became a brand-spanking-new Todd Barry bit. Breaking tradition, he could find nothing to mock in night 8’s charity, the Common Sense Foundation of Durham, North Carolina (suggested by David from Durham), but true to form did not leave the stage before taking issue with nearly every guitar, amplifier, and other piece of equipment of ours. He did go unusually easy on the drum kit, I wonder why.

We opened with the Beatles‘ “Not a Second Time,” reworked into a holiday-appropriate “Not a Ninth Time,” then came “Let’s Save Tony Orlando‘s House” and a bunch of other songs, most of which were being heard for the first time this week. Team Metal Mountains joined us for the middle of the set, and I thought they were especially stellar on “Fourth Time Around” and “Saturday.” With the help of P.G. Six on guitar, we sang “The Way Some People Die,” one of “Dave Schramm‘s contributions to Ride the Tiger, which was planned without knowing that Dave would be in attendance. (Had James ever played that song, we were asked later. A: I don’t think so.) We closed with “Eight Days a Week.”

We took a few requests during the encore: a last run-through of “Autumn Sweater” and a one-night-only “You Can Have It All.” Georgia strapped on a guitar for Blue Oyster Cult’s “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” vacating the kit for the drumming dynamo that is Todd Barry. Finally, Georgia sang Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and if there was a dry eye in the house, it wasn’t mine.

So many thank yous . . .

Just in case it hasn’t been obvious, these shows are being worked on in pretty much every waking moment, and not just by Georgia, James and me. Our crew — Joe, Gil and Mark — were in constant motion, and Suzanne and Brian took on an unhealthy workload as well, especially in preparation for this week. I want to thank Stephen Hunking again for the t-shirt designs and photos (including today’s). Todd Abramson and everyone at Maxwell’s make us feel so welcome, and that’s really saying something, as anyone who’s ever had a house guest for eight days can attest. See you next time, if there is a next time. Happy Hanukkhah.