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For that matter, a sit-in with Yo La Tengo rarely becomes a rehash of a guest's most notable numbers. When David Byrne materialized in 2002, there was nary a "Psycho Killer" or "Once In A Lifetime" in sight. Instead they dusted off "Pulled Up," not heard since the early Talking Heads days, a cover of fellow CBGBite Richard Hell's "Love Comes In Spurts" (as one of the band's now-traditional "seasonal" numbers paying tribute to great Jewish songwriters), and YLT's own "Tears Are In Your Eyes," with Byrne contributing a stunning and unexpected harmony vocal.
And then there are the comedians, fresh laughter being a far more literal and legitimate winter warm-up than a wait through even the most surprising or welcome support act. And the $10 mix discs (proceeds to charity, of course) that have been contributed over the years by everybody from novelist Jonathan Lethem to Japanese psychedelic mainstay Yamataka Eye of The Boredoms.
All of this is part of it, the reason why I—and at least a few dozen other people I might name—will find a way to get to at least half of the performances during this year's sold-out installment, which begins December 20. (Sold-out or not, there are usually face-value tickets floating around on Craigslist or even at Maxwell's itself.)
Really, it's that these are my people, and this is our place to be, where rock still burns in an eight-days-a-week continuum between the Velvet Underground at Max's Kansas City and whatever post-punk noise is burbling up in the deepest warehouses of Brooklyn, Tokyo, London, and everywhere in between. In Hoboken, over Hanukkah, it is more than the ersatz community one buys into at Death Star loading bays masquerading as indie-rock mega-venues like Terminal 5. At Maxwell's, there are no ticket scanners, thuggish security guards, roadie teams, VIP balconies, Facebook promotions, or sense of endless rules, but some remnant of rock music at the natural, human scale it was always meant to exist in.
"Family" is a hard metaphor to invoke, and I certainly hope not to use it if forced to explain over Christmas dinner. Despite the fact that this year's Hanukkah shows will likely include one of the regular guest appearances by Ira Kaplan's mother or perhaps even a niece or nephew (as in the killer opening set by The Pubes in '04), Hanukkah at Maxwell's is probably closer to utopia rendered as everyday life. For eight days, it is what local live music could feel like everywhere, notwithstanding how exhausting it surely is for Yo La Tengo. Not only that, but everyday life blown into magical detail.
When Alex Chilton died suddenly of a heart attack last spring, it was hard to imagine that most who had caught his extended encores with Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's didn't think back on the Hanukkah mitzvah. It is also doubtful that anyone present at Maxwell's didn't know, at that exact moment, exactly how special Chilton's appearance was, and feel the warm, amazed kind of glow that people often try to channel by invoking the far-off innocence of Christmas morning.
There probably won't be much beatnik jive talk over dinner this year, Christmas morning itself, or even Boxing Day. But that's OK, and that's what family is for. I have my faith, and, even if I don't get to celebrate all of Hanukkah this year, that (plus bootleg recordings) will last through all the other times.
For various reasons, Yo La Tengo doesn't play Hanukkah every year, either. Sometimes, they've got albums to promote. Who's to say this won't be the final one? But if they stick to their two-years-on/one-year-off schedule, their next holiday gathering will be in 2013, where Hanukkah's second night also happens to be Thanksgiving. That'll be a whole other conversation.
Jesse Jarnow's Big Day Coming:Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham Books) will be published in 2012.