Traditional Christmas music can be downright boring. Each year, radio and television trot out the same standards recorded to celebrate what is supposed to be a joyous and heartfelt season. When contemporary musicians get in on it, too, it sometimes seems like a blatant attempt to cash in on an unfortunately bland yet lucrative genre.
With that heavily in mind, recording their third full-length record, “The Christmas Album,” was a slippery slope for Christabel and the Jons.
“I wanted to do some things that were different. I wanted more mature Christmas songs,” says singer Christa DeCicco. “I wanted to find really beautiful, strong melodies with words that are sentimental and stick in your heart but aren’t really overdone.”
That meant abandoning the ordinary tales of Frosty and Rudolph in favor of more soulful, and occasionally lesser known, songs reworked to fit the band’s country-swing style, with intent sometimes filtered through the band’s soft sound and DeCicco’s slow, slinky, velvet vocals. If ratcheting up the maturity level of the holiday music season was the goal, DeCicco and band mates Seth Hopper, Jon Whitlock and Vince Ilagan have achieved it.
However, that doesn’t mean the band isn’t appropriate for all ages, especially when it comes to their yearly Christmas shows. Originally confined to the area around their hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., this year brings them to The Grey Eagle with what DeCicco describes as “like a holiday spectacular television show” affair. Along with The Actors Co-Op, also from Knoxville, the show will feature two 45-minute sets with scripted skits and comedy bits in between the music, as well as music from Asheville-based Woody Pines and a surprise guest artist.
Aside from serving as entertainment, DeCicco says the arrangement makes it easier on the band, too.
“All these songs are a little disjointed when you do them back-to-back straight through. It just kind of becomes a regular bar show,” she says. “What we want is for the Christmas show to be a little bit over-the-top, slightly gaudy, a little bit fake funny, like a 1970s Christmas spectacular or old holiday comedy specials with PG jokes. It’s very, very mild, very family friendly.”
Most of the songs included in the show will be Christmas songs from the new record, like “Christmas Island,” originally recorded by The Andrews Sisters and since covered by the likes of Bob Dylan. DeCicco calls it a “1950s calypso country-pop song,” and as a mostly ukulele and a cappella piece, it’s one of her favorites.
The sets include several of DeCicco’s preferred maturity-spiced tunes, like Julie London’s “I’d Like You for Christmas,” but may omit the band’s cover of John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison” on the same grounds as some of the new material they have written for a record due next year and currently have posted online.
“There will be no new songs at the Christmas show because they’re all heartbreak tunes, and that’s very difficult for us because that’s, like, 90 percent of our material,” she says. “We run into the same problem when we play weddings. We want to play another happy song and it’s like, ‘No, we don’t have another happy song.’”
The band does plan on incorporating a handful of their older, decidedly more upbeat material into the show, but the focus is undoubtedly the Christmas holiday. And DeCicco admits that initially she was not quite as sold on the idea as her mates were.
“I was a little bit reluctant to do this Christmas show because I felt like it was a big commitment to learn all this music, and there were songs we had to learn from scratch. You can’t even find the sheet music for them. You just have to listen to it over and over again to figure it out,” she says. “But Jon and Seth felt strongly about doing it. And the idea for scripting and having an emcee gave sort of a flow to it, more of a visual aspect. I loved the idea. It’s a lot more fun for everyone this way. It’s more entertaining for me.
“Maybe we’ve been a little strict with ourselves,” she adds. “This is a little bit looser.”
who: Christabel and the Jons Holiday Show, with Woody Pines and the Actor’s Co-op
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, December 9 (8:30 p.m., $8, http://www.thegreyeagle.com)