Making it Through December with Warm December Traditions

So, since the holiday time is usually so busy that going to see bands (much less writing about them) is something I have to carefully schedule time for, my grand plan was to just summarize holiday band traditions in one big post in January (like, um, now) and be done with it. Yeah, I'm doing that with this post, but I ended up getting that upper respiratory thing going around and blew off new year's eve, and decided this needed to be cut in half anyway, because now that I think about it, I got to see a lot of really great stuff but it wasn't all holiday traditional stuff.

Started off December with the annual Zappafest, which also usually coincides with mine and hubby Brian's birthdays, and this was a special edition, given that Zappa singer/guitarist Ike Willis was in the house, sitting in with Gozortenplat. I got there in time to see the Mirror Men take on a set of Captain Beefheart covers and it was satisfying. See, here's the thing. I can appreciate Zappa. In fact, I got through a grueling late stage labor with my first kid concentrating on the complexities of "Return of the Son of Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar" (as opposed to some "relaxing new age" dreck they usually play in maternity wards, which does nothing of the sort: you're shaking with waves of contractions and thinking, "somebody got PAID to play three notes slowly? Nurse! Crank up the fucking epidural -- I'm in pain AND I'm pissed off!").  But when Zappa puts lyrics in the mix, after a while, I just get tired: geez, did that guy like anybody? In Frank Zappa's world (much like Bob Dylan's), we're all hypocritical sheep, everything that isn't them sucks, and the smugness of it all gets tiresome. (At least once in a while Dylan acknowledges the hope and beauty in the world and that some of that beauty actually comes from other people. But I digress.) I hate saying "Shut up and [do the thing that I like you to do]" -- I know it makes me sound like some kind of right-wing blowhard that can't deal with, for instance, the fact that Bruce Springsteen is actually left wing (and has been his entire career) but oh well. That's how I feel about Zappa: my favorite Zappa albums are all in the Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar series.

Beefheart, on the other hand, is just plain twisted and weird, which is why the band I was really looking forward to was indeed some of the best players in town coming together in tribute. I'd gotten a little taste of it the week beforehand at Trash Fest, and it was the warmup for a truly riveting set. I'll admit, I'm not all that much of a Beefheart expert, but after hearing these guys for two Zappas and a Trash fest, maybe it's time I ran out and picked up a few of the Captain's albums and go watch this probing interview of him on American Bandstand. The Mirror Men got plenty of appreciation from an admittedly hard to impress crowd, and they can list inspiring a new Beefheart fan among their accomplishments. Thanks to Blaine Schultz (who played guitar with them) for identifying this song for me as "China Pig." I wasn't taking any chances; while this song started out as a slamming blues, it went off into never never land and never came back.

Dr Chow
Dr Chow's Love Medicine was up next, and no surprises. Dr Chow's always had several Zappa tunes in their repertoire, so it wasn't like they had to completely work from scratch to get something ready for this show. They also pick the right Zappa tunes that match their talents and delivery: highlight for me was "The Torture Never Stops." It's almost comforting to listen to these songs delivered by what is essentially a great garage blues band: they inject a level of humanity while retaining top-notch musicianship.

Ike Willis with Gozortenplat
Gozortenplat traditionally wraps up Zappafest these days, and they were a good pick to be the band that Ike Willis sat with. They're sharp, well-rehearsed, know the material like the back of their hands, and opened the set with "Peaches en Regalia" (which was the recessional at my wedding -- seriously, I don't hate this man's music -- I just can't do more than an hour of it), not the easiest song to master, but they nailed it. My understanding is that Willis had received some terrible news about a friend of his earlier, and being the pro he is, still went on stage and delivered a performance that was worth dealing with the packed room. I'm hoping that playing this music, with and for people who love and appreciate it, was fun and comforting for him.

Caley Conway
Liam O'Brien
A week or so later I was in great shape to go hit another December tradition: the Christmas show hosted by (The Celebrated Workingman) Mark Waldoch and Testa Rosa. The last time I was able to hit this show was several years ago, a couple of days after I'd been laid off my job (yes, I got laid off a week before Christmas) and the warmth and joy these bands filled the room with saved my soul. I'm happy to say that level of warmth and love during this show -- a fundraiser for Hunger Task Force -- has only multiplied, along with the number of acts. As I paid my cover and strolled into the Cooperage, I was pleasantly happy to see Caley Conway, an artist I'd stumbled upon by sheer accident a few years back, pushing out some minor key, almost torch-y versions of holiday hits. She's built upon that sweet country voice coupled with a knowing sadness that drew me in those years ago. Same thing here: her set was beautifully melancholy, yet, in keeping with -- and setting the tone for the evening -- warm. Waldoch joined her later on trombone, which also set another wonderful tone: the whole evening wasn't  Band A plays/take down/Band B plays/take down, etc. It was more some people would come on stage, others would come off, some people would pick up an instrument, others would relinquish their spot on the stage. It was like everybody knew, liked and respected each other and as a result, delivered this cohesive holiday show. Soon after Conway was finished Liam O'Brien came onstage, and with a voice built for it, bullied us all with "You're A Mean One, Mr Grinch."  Lex Allen, holding a holiday cocktail and looking resplendent in a glittery torn black chemise, sweetly sang some Jason Mraz tune that everybody in the room except me knew (and sang along with it).  I'll gush more about Allen in the next post, but enough to say I made a mental note not to miss him when he played out again, and I did indeed catch him a week later. He was followed by L'Resorts, a duo that rendered some originals following by a stirring "Silent Night."
Mark Waldoch and Maya Norman
Waldoch returned with Maya Norman and together they played out a darling version of "Baby It's Cold Outside," delivered by Norman with the level of flirty coquettishness necessary to keep it from being subject to all that ickyness being discussed this year, and more of the show of respectability for "what will the neighbors think of me staying at a man's house?" that I'd always interpreted it as. It was darling. Waldoch stayed on stage and soulfully sang some Christmas classics, bringing down the house with a tear-inducing take on "Oh Holy Night." Yes, unlike that lady who always sat behind me in my childhood church, his glorious tenor went for -- and triumphantly hit -- those high notes at the end.

Testa Rosa
The only act that could possibly hope to follow was Testa Rosa, and it was Betty Blexrud-Strigens' clear voice on top of the band's waltz arpeggio on "2000 Miles" (that wonderful Pretenders song with the chorus "It must be Christmastime....") that brought us back to earth.  Gorgeous. There should have been a disco ball projecting lights across the room for it, but I'll take the green and red laser light show we had. Betty's voice falls somewhere between Karen Carpenter and Chrissie Hynde -- clearer than Hynde's and just as warm but not as melancholy as Carpenter's. Also, I like Betty's take on this more than Hynde's probably because I know Betty to be as warm and wonderful as her voice and Hynde by all accounts is, well, um, OK, Chrissie Hynde is a talented songwriter with a great voice. They then went into an even more hopeful version of Merle Haggard's "If We Can Make It Through December" that gave me chills -- probably because the first time I heard them do it was that December so many year ago when my laid off ass was trying to figure out how I was going to pay the bills, and just hearing Betty sing it calmed me down, knowing that somehow, everything was going to be alright. Waldoch joined them for a pile of happy, touching holiday tunes that lifted everybody's spirits, just as it did all those years ago. This past December was a tough month capping off a tough year for many important people in my life: this show was a bright warm bucket of beauty and warmth that helped me, once again, get through December myself. Thanks, guys.


Popular Posts