As a rule, I don’t like to open my Christmas presents early. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered there’s real pleasure in prolonging holiday anticipation, watching and wondering as the stack of gifts develops beneath our tree. My deliberate Yule pacing drives my kids crazy, but I’d be willing to wait until New Year’s before the first present is unwrapped, were that an acceptable option.
There is however, one exception – the annual 12 Bands of Christmas compilation and concert, which will be at Augusta Common from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, as part of the holiday parade and tree-lighting festivities.
I start thinking about this thing in August. I’m careful not to find out who is participating, although I occasionally stumble over news of an act or three, but it really is a project I’m ready to unwrap as soon as possible. As in years past, this 10th-anniversary edition is the best kind of mixed bag, ranging from hard rock to slow jams. Here’s a look at what is offered.
HAPPY BONES – THE XMAS SONG – An outlaw ode to Christmas, this swampy song is an infectious tale of the holiday season told from the perspective of someone perpetually on the naughty list and the ultimate hope of redemption.
JOHN KOLBECK – WILD CHRISTMAS TREE – One of Augusta’s most talented and diverse artists, Kolbeck continues to strengthen his reputation as a writer and performer with this track. What could have easily become a Christmas cliché instead becomes a Yule-appropriate metaphor for self-determination. Who saw that coming?
PANIC MANOR – ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU – One of the great pleasures of this job is watching performers evolve and transform. While I’ve always considered Panic Manor singer Liz Bramlett talented, I initially was put off by her slavish devotion to her influences. I felt like she – and the band she fronted – adhered too closely to the acts that influenced the music.
This raucous take on a Christmas classic is the work of a band clearly comfortable with its own aesthetic, an aesthetic that leans heavily on Bramlett’s powerful voice and skillful navigation of a lyric.
MATT ACOSTA – BALLAD FOR CHRISTMAS MORN – This folky ballad is a beautiful demonstration of Acosta’s skills as a player and his uncanny ear for making simple arrangements really sing. The vocal performance could be stronger, but that being said, there’s a naturalness to the singing that makes the track appealing.
CELIA GARY – HAPPY HOLIDAYS – While Gary’s always-engaging voice manages to keep this tune aloft, there’s a certain sense of melancholic heard-this-tale-before that I’m pretty sure is unintentional. Perhaps if the sprightly guitar had been higher in the mix and there had been more of a twist on tradition, this tune would have made more of an impact.
LEATHERLIPS – HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS – Not nearly as metal as the name might imply, Leatherlips, the performing moniker of Brian Mitchell, takes a classicist’s approach to this classic. Does it shed any new light on the composition? Not at all. Is it something pleasant and appropriate to wrap presents to? Absolutely.
THE GILDED YOUTH – EBENEZER – Why aren’t there more big, loud rock songs about Ebenezer Scrooge? This track combines the menace of the Charles Dickens story with an engaging grasp of power chords and pop hooks. The result is a wholly unexpected take on familiar material that, while suffering some from muddy production, still manages to engage the head-bobbing reflex.
THE HOLLERERS – WHAT CHILD IS THIS – I’m not sure where to file this unusual track. Barroom Baroque? Madrigal Blues? It’s an ambitious blending of this Augusta act’s harp-driven blues and the delicate nature of this traditional carol. I’m not sure it is a completely successful experiment, but I certainly appreciate the audacity of the idea.
ADAM THOMPSON – LET LOVE BE BORN – You have to admire the earnestness of this track. While the arrangement and writing seem a lot like run-of-the-mill Christmas fare, his imperfect approach to vocal delivery actually elevates the song, giving it a sense of intimacy and immediacy.
SKILYR HICKS – SNOWFLAKES IN THE SOUTH – I first heard Skilyr Hicks a little over a year ago while judging the talent show at the Georgia-Carolina State Fair. Later, she attracted attention in another talent show – television’s America’s Got Talent. While I’ve always been a fan of her unique phrasing, I’m more interested in the artist she will become than the artist she is today. I hear a lot of potential in her voice, playing and writing, but also a real need to develop as an artist if she’s going to play with more mature acts. Stay tuned however. Great things might happen.
DERELICT STRING BAND – THE 25TH IS HERE – This rough-and-ready Americana track lacks any sense of polish or perfectionism. Thank goodness. A song that feels like it was composed over a couple of high-octane cocktails on a well-worn wooden porch, it’s as pure an expression of seasonal joy as any in this collection. Nice work.
KAREN GORDON – COME ALL YE FAITHFUL – I’ve always found solace in simplicity. That’s why I find Karen Gordon’s nearly completely unadorned version of this classic so powerful. Reduced to keys played simply and the rich tones of Gordon’s voice, it’s the perfect way to end this collection.