I went to my first Yo La Tengo Hanukkah show by accident.
When I noticed, in the fall of 2001, that Yo La Tengo were set to play a series of shows at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, I didn’t think twice about it. The band had done similar residencies before — there was a 1997 series at Westbeth Theater in Manhattan where, on the night I attended, Ira Kaplan memorably climbed behind the drum kit alongside Georgia Hubley to play a cover of “Ant Music” (“Don’t hurt me,” she warned, as he picked up a set of sticks); and a 1998 series at Maxwell’s where I arrived ready for some rocking out, only to discover that this was the one night they’d decided to play every single song in shoegazey Velvet Underground mode. So another run of shows at Maxwell’s seemed only normal — even if it was slightly confusing to me why Penn Jillette and Gilbert Gottfried for some reason came out in the middle of Yo La Tengo’s set to do a comedy bit.
The year 2001, it turned out, was to be just the first of nine (non-consecutive) years that the band would play eight nights of charity shows, each with a special guest opener and special guest comedian and most with a special encore guest as well, at their favorite hometown venue. The one night I picked in 2002, I ended up witness to openers Portastatic and the incomparable Soundtracapella, and also first met my friend Brandon when I spotted him making a recording of the show (something that at the time had the band’s blessing) and asked if I could get a copy. At a 2005 show — I had graduated to attending two nights of each run by then — I began chatting with someone who was scribbling down the setlists, and who turned out to be Jesse Jarnow, later to go on become YLT’s official biographer.
In 2010 I finally won Hanukkah roulette and, instead of finding out belatedly that I’d missed the one night I desperately wanted to see — guests were traditionally announced only at show time, via a discreet notice on the club door — ended up with tickets for the night where my favorites Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby were guesting; naturally, I then came down with the flu during the opening act (by famed food critic Robert Sietsema’s ’80s band Mofungo) and ended up having to go home before the main set. In 2011, Ira played the entire eight nights sitting in a chair after undergoing an as-yet-unrevealed medical procedure, bringing on guest guitarists (my nights featured Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Tara Key of Antietam) who made the shows wonderful in all new ways.
Maxwell’s was shuttered by gentrification in 2013, and at first it looked like the Hanukkah tradition would end as well. But in July 2017, at a free show in Central Park, Ira announced a surprise: They’d be trying it again, this time at Manhattan’s somewhat-less-minuscule-than-Maxwell’s Bowery Ballroom, that fall. Then, as a taste of what would be to come, he brought his mother up onstage to sing “My Little Corner of the World,” as she had to close many of the Hoboken runs.
I’d never been to more than two Hanukkah shows in a single year, but with the venue closer to home and not knowing if this revival would be a one-time thing, I bought tickets to all eight nights, and attended every minute of them. I saw Nick Lowe and John Doe and John Hodgman and Jeff Tweedy and Jim Jarmusch and Sun Ra Arkestra, and, on two different nights, two different guest harpists; I saw many, many old friends, and Brandon even flew in from Nebraska for five nights of the run. I bought a “Yo La Tengo Good Guy” t-shirt and a poster I still haven’t put up and several mix CDs put together by the band and its friends. The Exiles’ “Church Street Soul Revival” was on Night 5’s disc, put together by the members of Antietam, who I have a long, surprisingly not-entirely–Yo La Tengo–dependent history with — but that’s a story for another roll of the iTunes dice.
And the Exiles? Much as you might expect from the title, this song turned out to be a gospel-tinged nugget soaked in equal parts organ wash and vinyl crackle. Wikipedia tells me the band started in 1963 in Lexington, Kentucky, and soon became featured on Dick Clark’s touring revue, and that they later changed their name to just Exile, at which point they recorded “Kiss You All Over,” which until just now I hadn’t thought about in 40 years. Then they became a country act, then they broke up. I would dearly love to read an extended biography of this band, but until then, I’ll be glad of the strange little window I’ve been afforded into a story that I otherwise would never have known about. A Hanukkah miracle, indeed.