I haven’t always been a fan of 12 Bands of Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, I have the greatest respect for the mission of the event and organization. How could I not? For years, children with cancer and their families have benefited from the time and tireless effort of Augusta’s music community and that, in the end, is the most important element of both this annual project and the ongoing work the organization does year around. But the Christmas component – the CD in particular – has on occasion left me cold.
My problem was the approach many participating musicians took toward Christmas songs. They were reverent. They were reflective. They were soft and smooth and oh-so-very Silent Night. What they lacked was a certain swagger. Their songs were often meditations on, rather than celebrations of, the holiday season. The CDs felt a lot like that collection of holiday songs played while wrapping gifts and then promptly ignored. There just wasn’t enough of the energy and enthusiasm that makes Augusta’s music community so interesting.
Bristling with the raucous rock and powerful pop, the careening country and deep funk that typifies Augusta music, the ninth edition of the 12 Bands of Christmas CD does celebrate Christmas, in a most insistent way.
Opening with the Jeremy Graham Band’s song about the memories served up at a holiday table and segueing immediately into 12 Bands veteran Tara Scheyer and the Mud Puppy Band playing heavy and electric in a way her young fans rarely hear, this is a record that demands to be listened to.
There’s nothing ordinary or expected, nothing that feels by the numbers. Yes, the songs are accessible in the way a great holiday tune should be, but they are never banal.
An act like Jesup Dolly could have easily tuned down its rock tendencies and turned in a little acoustic Americana and nobody would have blinked. But it wouldn’t have been authentic. It would have been a track performed by Jesup Dolly, not a Jesup Dolly track. Instead the band opted to re-imagine the mythology of The Polar Express as rolling train blues.
Among the standout tracks are the tale of the Clauses’ courtship as interpreted by the Mason Jars, Black Swan Lane’s bittersweet It’s Christmas All the Time and the welcome return of Impulse Ride with a fair-weather holiday song called Sunshine Christmas.
Perhaps the most affecting track, however, is a cover presented by the act with the least experience – J.A.M.P., a young funk band comprised of novice musicians ranging in age from 7 to 18. Most have only been playing a few years. But under the direction of former James Brown guitar guy Keith Jenkins and, I believe, the watchful eye of the Godfather himself, they channel the spirit and soul of Augusta’s greatest musical success story.
The song they play? James Brown’s Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto.
There could be no other choice.
You can hear the new CD (and buy one, if you like) at a free listening party from 6-9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at Enterprise Mill.
This year’s concert, traditionally held at Imperial Theatre, will take on a new format and a new location. Rather than a concert, a 12 Bands of Christmas Festival will take place from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8, at Augusta Common. Tickets are $10, with ages 12 and younger admitted free.
For more details, see www.12bands.org.