After descending into 5 A.M. shopping madness last Black Friday and witnessing Amazon’s server meltdown during the Internet’s own Black Monday, I need something innocuous and soothing for the dawn of December.
Unsurprisingly, I’m one of those who turns the cable box to “Sounds of the Season” and leaves it there until the 26th. Well, maybe not that extreme, but I have pushed my seasonal music tastes well past Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song.”
Upon hearing a recent NPR story about how “A Charlie Brown Christmas” almost didn’t get made, I got to thinking of all the holiday music that’s broken through the traditional fodder. Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, with the soundtrack to the TV special, started a new musical dialogue in 1965. The record’s never been out of print.
What follows is a (short) list of some, shall we say, adventurous musical selections for the holiday season. Let’s play oddball!
Only Chris Isaak could do a credible job with Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” The rest of his “Christmas” album has plenty of upper lip quivering and quirky Farfisa organ riffs. On the other hand, “Christmas With Jethro Tull” is really just piling on, don’t you think?
Speaking of freakish contributions to the Christmas music canon, do you realize that a henna-haired Billy Idol, looking like your cousin that won the high school talent contest, recently unleashed “Happy Holidays” on an unsuspecting world?
From the Disney mouse factory, Aly & AJ try, with “Acoustic Hearts of Winter,” to mint a new holiday standard. “The Greatest Time of Year” sounds like a ‘tween “Born to Run” with sleigh bells.
On “Wintersong,” Sarah McLachlan covers Joni Mitchell’s suicidal “River.” Even more dour is Aimee Mann’s “One More Drifter in the Snow,” but I like it because the sullen pose is impossibly endearing. I hear Mann’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” and just want to feed her hot buttered rums.
Topping my list is the rootsy “Christmas With Jorma Kaukonen,” with wintry finger picking and “Christmas Rule,” where the Hot Tuna frontman recalls burning Santa’s sleigh from the sky and being drafted as an elf as a result. Fun stuff, but don’t try it at home.
Now, as regards the weekend’s live entertainment options, here’s a more prosaic list of recommendations:
Thursday: Averi, New England College – If a new generation of arena rockers is ever anointed to replace the dwindling dinosaur population, this Boston band should lead the charge. They have a big sound, and the chutzpah to cover Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” with a reverently straight face. I wonder if the college crowd in Henniker will go wild for them. Did I miss a culture shift memo?
Friday: Scott Ainslie, Hooker-Dunham Sanctuary – Bluesologist and author of one of the better protest songs of the past few years (“Don’t Obey” from 2004’s “Feral Crow”), Ainslie returns for what’s become a regular first Friday in December appearance in downtown Brattleboro. Here is living proof that white men can play the blues.
Saturday: Hot Tuna, Lebanon Opera House – Some of my earliest rock shows were witnessed through a hole in the ceiling of a bar in the Santa Cruz Mountains, watching this band. In those days they featured the late Papa John Creach on violin. Some nights they were electric, others acoustic, and their early music set the tone for a lot of Americana bands who followed. Tonight, Jorma and Jack’s sound is complemented by drums and mandolin.
Sunday: Area Choir, Newport First Congregational Church – This is another of those “if you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing” recommendations. A local tradition since 1953, the Area Choir assembles the best singers from churches throughout the region for a program of hymns and Christmas carols in a beautiful setting. Congregants are invited to sing along to “What Child Is This” and “Silent Night” in addition to listening.
Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Quechee Inn – New to this space! After months of good intentions, I finally had a chance to see the Gully Boys at Seven Barrels last weekend. I left my email address, and for my trouble was tipped off to this weekly event. Tuesdays in Quechee, it’s a hybrid open mike/song circle, featuring local musicians Dave Clark, Jed Dickinson and Kerry Rosenthal, along with a rotating group of friends like Terry Diers, Ford Daley and Sam Moffatt.
Wednesday: Sonya Kitchell & Ben Taylor, Northampton Academy of Music – This young lady simply knocked my socks off at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival. The teenager belts like Janis Joplin, and doesn’t need Southern Comfort to stay loose. Ben Taylor looks like a carbon copy of father James, though his sound’s far grittier, which explains his appeal to the alt-rock crowd.