Christmas concerts that deck the halls in nontraditional ways
Winter's early darkness and bitter winds made South 13th Street seem spookier than a Halloween fright-fest. Yet all was merry and bright Sunday inside the Church of St. Luke & the Epiphany as Philadelphia jazz chanteuse Mary Ellen Desmond and her musical merry-men (Tom Lawton, Larry McKenna, and others) performed Desmond's annual Comfort & Joy Holiday Jazz Concert benefiting local residents affected by AIDS/HIV.
"I do this to help the church remain visible in its availability to the community … providing support for lives affected by AIDS /HIV," said Desmond. The concert also serves as a remembrance of friends lost to the disease. "So many people make it their holiday tradition, so I switch up the repertoire annually with tunes seasonal yet unfamiliar, including songs that offer comfort for folks who find holidays a difficult time, songs thought-provoking in a spiritual way, or reflective of a noncommercial celebration of the season."
Desmond's show kicked off a coming rush of holiday-themed, radically varied live-music events. The airily poppy Work Drugs, for example, make their Christmas show a yearly passion.
"This will be our sixth, and every year builds out to be bigger, more of a spectacle," says Work Drugs' Ben Louisiana, giggling about doubling and tripling the number of lights, garlands, and still-secret sets and guests planned for Saturday's twinkly celebration at Boot & Saddle. "It's a holiday show. That's what you do!"
Work Drugs members pen new holiday songs ("Never Gonna Be Alone on Christmas") and cover beloved chestnuts (Darlene Love's "All Alone on Christmas"). Support bands Mercury Girls and RFA will do something similar. But don't expect anything too holy. "All denominations are welcome, as we're here to spread good cheer," says Louisiana. "We're not overthinking religious overtones, undertones, or lack thereof. Work Drugs doesn't take itself too seriously and thinks people that do should reevaluate."
Elegant, international, cocktail cool kings Pink Martini host a Holiday Spectacular on Thursday at the Keswick Theatre. Bandleader/pianist/arranger Thomas Lauderdale comes with religious cred — his dad was a pastor at Eel River Church of the Brethren in Indiana. "I don't mind the Christian thing. That's my upbringing," says Lauderdale, "but we're inclusive of all religions in the show."
Like comedian Jerry Lewis, Lauderdale's swizzle-sticky orchestra is big in France. "From the start. Our first single, 'Sympathique,' was nominated for song of the year at France's Victoires de la Musique. They love us there," says Lauderdale. So, along with celebrating the songs of 2015's holiday-themed Joy to the World album, Pink Martini will play its French-forward latest, Je Dis Oui!
The Oh Hellos come to Friday's holiday celebration at Union Transfer with family in mind: The Texas folk-pop duo are siblings Tyler and Maggie Heath. Their rich, quirky catalog includes 2013's The Oh Hellos' Family Christmas Album. "That record came from a frenzy of writing and recording new Christmas songs, with our friends involved, and the whole thing comes across like a community of joy, I think," says Tyler Heath. "That's the most distinguishing aspect of Christmas." His sister Maggie chimes in: "We wrote from our gut without thinking of those songs as Christmas-y. They're Oh Hello songs where pine trees and Yule logs pop up."
The Oh Hello's Christmas show will have the group's usual folksy feel — plus bad jokes, sing-alongs, and line dancing — tipped with holiness. "We grew up in the Christian church and still align ourselves with the Christian faith," says Maggie. Adds Tyler, "Christmas is for everybody, not just those who believe what we do."
One of the city's most raucous, least likely to keep the Christmas peace ensembles, Marah, have been absent from the Yuletide log-ins for the last several seasons. This year, however, the band that recorded 2005's A Christmas Kind of Town hit the ground running like a red-nosed reindeer.
"When I first met them, they had a small Christmas party at their home quarters on Bancroft Street in South Philly, like 1998," says the band's ever-present slide guitarist Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner. "There was no playing of instruments, just Johnny Mathis on the turntable and everyone getting [messed] up, which was also fun." Marah will host a Christmas show Friday at Underground Arts because it brings back memories of hazy, intimate good times. Brenner contends that there will be loud guitars and thundering drummer boys. "Mathis couldn't make it," he says. "And yet, we will persevere."
Can we get a ho, ho, ho to that?
Pink Martini's Holiday Spectacular, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Keswick Theatre, 291 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside. $35-$75, 215-572-7650, keswicktheatre.com. The Oh Hellos' Christmas Extravaganza, 8:30 p.m. Friday, Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. $20-$22, 215-232-2100, utphilly.com. Marah: Philadelphia Holiday Spectacular with Mike "Slo-Mo" Brenner, 9 p.m. Friday, Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St. $20-$50, undergroundarts.org. 6th Annual Work Drugs Holiday Spectacle, 8 p.m. Saturday, Boot & Saddle, 1131 S. Broad St. $10-$12, bootandsaddlephilly.com.