Among the CDs currently splayed across my desk are a handful of Christmas titles that I, being a sucker for holiday spirit, popped in the player. Now, I'm no Christmas elf, but I have been known to clap my hands like a seal at the sight of good zippy lights, and the sound of an a capella children's choir can make me sniffle and mist. So it was that I came to listen to Gotta Love the Holidays, a compendium of old chestnuts by such adult contemporary megastars as Barry Manilow, Celine Dion and Elton John. Whatever I think of these artists--and it's more positive than you'd expect--their offerings here are nothing but coals and switches. Schmaltzy, predictably phrased and as relentlessly upbeat as the cabbage patch. By the time I got to "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," read by Sharon Stone with (no joke) Larry King as the voice of Santa Claus, I could think of no better use for the CD than sawing through my own wrist.
The sad truth is that for a joyous holiday, Christmas has some bloody awful music. Note to the three wise men: Next time, bring the Beatles. After all, what kind of emotion does "Here We Come a-Wassailing" kindle for you? Has anyone busted a move to "The Holly and the Ivy?" It's been said many times that Christmas has lost its heart. But musically, Christmas has lost its soul.
As a college student, I fell in love with Louis Armstrong's Christmas songs. Satchmo's glorious rattle pumped some blood back into those lifeless numbers. But even I must admit that "'Zat You, Santa Claus?" loses its zabba-zibba-zing after a decade of spins. So this year, I went in search of a new holiday album, something that wouldn't shame me or make me want to put a staple gun to my forehead. A colleague suggested the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio--"the only Christmas album you'll ever need," he told me. He may be right: Guaraldi's jazz arrangements are just plain cool, smooth as a single-malt scotch. But here's the deal: I like to sing. Seriously. Guaraldi's mellow mood is lovely, but I needed something more.
That's where the Blind Boys of Alabama come in. A seven-man gospel choir originally founded by Clarence Fountain at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, the Blind Boys have put out this year's best holiday album and probably my favorite ever. Pardon the gush, but any collection featuring collaborations with Tom Waits, George Clinton and Chrissie Hynde deserves my $15 and some hyperbole. Go Tell It on the Mountain transforms carols from thin, febrile clichés into revelations. When Robert Randolph backs the Blind Boys on "Away in a Manger," the pedal-steel virtuoso turns the somber song into an incendiary blues number. Then Clinton comes in: "No crib, no pillow, nowhere to lay his head. You know what I'm talkin' about." And you know what? Suddenly, I do. This woeful old tale of grace in the face of lucklessness never sounded quite so moving when my high school choir sang it. The album's best number, however, is its title track, with Waits doing his best bloody-esophagus imitation of an old black blues singer--which is surely what ol' Tommy boy would prefer. This is a New Orleans dirge, with minor-key arrangement and the Blind Boys echoing Waits' caterwauling. It captures what those chirpy standards, forced as a family photo, never could grasp: To feel the spirit, you have to wrestle the demon.
Last weekend's sold-out Good Records Christmas party at the Lakewood Theater was like an adult carnival. Hosted by the Polyphonic Spree , who appeared for a special holiday set dressed in red robes and floppy Santa hats, the Spree offered a bombastic and irresistible version of "Joy to the World," cymbals crashing and white balloons drifting from the ceiling like Texas-sized snow. The children brought onstage to accompany the Spree looked confused, if not outright terrified, but this was more for the adults--goofy and top-of-the-lungs fun. As the song segued into Three Dog Night's pop version of the tune, gleeful Spree-heads in the audience pumped their fists in exaltation. Now that's the Christmas spirit.
On Christmas night, after the gifts are open and the depression starts to kick in, I suggest you hoof it downtown for the Live in the Lounge 2 CD release party at Curtain Club, Liquid Lounge and Club Clearview. The lineup befits the generosity of the holidays, with contributions from Chemistry Set, Woodbelly, Envoy, Jibe, The Feds, Slow Roosevelt and so many more. The $10 cover also buys a double-disc CD. Proceeds go to Jonathan's Place, a foster home for drug-addicted babies and children.
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