Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Start the Day on a Swingset

Three nights in a row of music married to comedy. It's practically a Christmas miracle.

Call it heart-warming, the way talented people are going out of their way to entertain those of us who haven't left town and don't have holiday parties to go to.

Waiting for the back room to open, I got caught up in a conversation about the pros and cons of technology with a younger guy who had a rationalization for every point about the negative effects of technology. So what if people don't converse as much? Hey, more time to research on the Internet, he insists.

The only concession he makes is that in his peer group, if people are talking and there's a silence, everyone immediately goes to their screen. Silence means they're bored and need stimulus. "We're not too good on social interaction."

You realize your people are doomed, I inquire politely enough. He grins "We're all gonna die, so what does it matter?"

There's the old fighting spirit.

Eventually he admits that he works in IT and brags about an app he's developed which allows the user to put in a neighborhood and find out pertinent details about the bars there. And by pertinent, he's talking things such as the energy level, the age range of patrons and whether there's dancing or karaoke.

Cute, sure, but as I inform him, I already know all that information about most of the places in the city, so I've no earthly use for his app. As it turn out, neither do other locals, but visitors and tourists are a different story.

When I got up from the bar to find a seat in the back, my new friend joins me as the room filled up quickly for the Brunswick Christmas Extravaganza, an original Christmas tale told by a big band and friends. Santa hat-clad bandleader John Hulley had dreamed up a whole scenario of the band at an imaginary cabin (Tuckaway Lodge, get it?) in the snow-covered woods trying to put on a show.

Think Mickey and Judy (go ahead and Google it, kids, I'll wait).

I gotta say, it was a festive-looking band with various members dressing the part in Christmas sweaters, a wreath bow instead of a bow tie, a sweater that lit up, even a string of lights on a trombone.

It was every bit as corny as it sounds and perfectly delightful at the same time. Anything that begins with Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" played by a 12-piece band is off to an excellent start.

From there, a Christmas music sampler alternated with skits such as a mailman played by singer Kelli Strawbridge delivering John mail at the remote cabin, only to take over the mic - "I got this covered" - when he hears the band is about to do James Browns' "Soulful Christmas."

Who better to play a Santa-wannabe who looks more like a bum with attitude than Balliceaux's music guru, Chris Bopst? Perennial toothpick in mouth, and looking a little like the Grinch, he explains to the bandleader that he's the replacement for the guy he hired for the show. "He had a few problems, girlfriend got pregnant, kids are screaming, you know."

Charlie Brown was channeled when bassist Cameron Ralston got "Christmas Time is Here" started and I was reminded how terrific that song sounds live after hearing it a million times recorded. Reggie Pace nailed the triangles and other percussion in the song and did it looking like a sharp-dressed man in a lavender shirt and tie under a black vest.

Listening to the lovely Sam Reed, radiant in a long red gown, sing "The Christmas Song" was almost as good as hearing Nat King Cole sing it, although it didn't hurt that she was three feet from my face. I'd call it a perfect holiday moment.

The reliably funny Josh Blubaugh from Richmond Comedy Coalition must have drawn the short straw because he played the Sugar Plum Fairy dressed, incidentally, in a hot dog costume, to the kickin' Duke Ellington arrangement of Tchaikovsky's dance of the sugar plum fairy, the "Sugar Rum Cherry."

Words can't adequately convey both the hilarity and the pure pleasure of sitting in Balliceaux listening to a classic composer's music channeled through a black musical pioneer while a large man with a beard dances around the seated audience. The premise was trumpet player Sam Koff's dream sequence (brought on by experiments to create the perfect Christmas cocktail) a la "Nutcracker," but with tequila in hand, it was practically transcendent.

Then, oh, no, there was a power outage at the Tuckaway! Fortunately, staff scrambled around setting up candles and the yellow stool next to me, which had been labeled, "Reserved! NOT a seat!" suddenly had four votives casting flattering candlelight my way while the band played "Silent Night."

But poor John was bummed that guests wouldn't make it for their Christmas show (which he'd dubbed "Home for the Hulley-days," causing the band to shout out that they had not agreed on that), so Reggie left the percussion onstage to come  play the Linus role and remind John what Christmas is all about and it's not a packed audience.

Kind of brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

Before closing with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," John shared that he'd spent the afternoon making 15 or 20 Brunswick Christmas ornaments. "Please take one. I painted them for you."

When the song ended, the crowd jumped up clapping and John, clearly thrilled with the reception to and success of his writing and conducting endeavor, threw his Santa hat up in the air. It landed neatly on my shoulder in the second row, where I left it as I applauded along with the rest of the room.

When I return it to its rightful owner, he proclaims it a Christmas miracle. Nah, it's more that taking someone's Christmas hat is wrong, just wrong.

You see, friends, here in Richmond, our big bands not only dream up Christmas variety shows and execute them flawlessly, they take the time to hand-paint Christmas tree ornaments for us to take home as a memory. Brooklyn only wishes it was half as mind-blowingly sincere.

Would you believe
I got peace of mind
And I'll be groovin'
At Christmas time

And that perfect Christmas cocktail I'll have in hand as I groove? Chances are it'll be a Sugar Rum Cherry.

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