Category: Christmas

Live review: Drake mines the plight of love, fame at Cali Christmas

The brooding rapper’s cocky swagger mingles with his softer side at Power 106’s Christmas show at the Gibson.

At the end of his headlining set at the Gibson Amphitheatre for Power 106 FM’s Cali Christmas on Friday, Drake puffed out his chest and took on his skeptics. "Just because I sing don’t mean I’m a wuss," he said (albeit in more forthright language).

For a rapper who built his hugely successful career on the idea that threesomes with Rodarte models in Milan hotel rooms can really leave an existential hole in your heart, this was a weirdly defensive stance. Clearly, Drake is no softie -- Lil’ Wayne is his mentor, and he’s on every emcee’s speed dial when they need an ambling guest verse.

Given his sonically misty, emotionally bloodshot new record "Take Care," though, the tough-guy peacocking underlined the strange task he had in headlining Cali Christmas.

Drake has perhaps the most devoted, diverse fan base in rap right now and an enviable scorecard of hits. But he’s a moody, full-album artist at heart. He met his obligations to knock out drive-time bangers on Friday, yet the tracks from "Take Care" suggested that not even a magnum of Chateau Lafite and a couple of comely FIDM students could improve his mood given stardom’s depersonalization. Maybe that’s really what has his hackles up.

An uncharacteristically thin bill preceded him at the Gibson. Cali Christmas is known for its rapid-clip turnover of the year’s chart artists. Drake’s airwave dominance meant that he was going to rule the night with sheer volume of hits. But two artists who appeared before him lent context to just what an anomaly Drake is in pop right now.

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Holidays and heartbreak: The best non-Christmas Christmas song?

As a young'un, whenever I would hear Elvis Presley's take on "Blue Christmas," I would think, "A blue Christmas? How can anyone possibly be sad on Christmas?" "Maybe," I would think, "I'll someday be able to relate to the song," as if I was outlining some self-fulfilling path of gloom.

Alas, as a properly grown man -- my action figures today are neatly dusted and on display rather than strewn about my floor -- I find that the holiday season means something very different from what it did when I was 9. Everyone has his or her own personal memories and nostalgic thoughts, and to continue on this path would be nothing but pure indulgence.

To put it more simply, occasionally I want something a little more serious than "Outer Space Santa." From a master at romanticizing heartbreak, Nick Cave, "I Do, Dear, I Do" usually does the trick. Though simply an outtake from the 1997 album "The Boatman's Call," it has long deserved a proper release, and offers a hint of the kind of beautiful sadness that could someday be a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds holiday album. With themes of redemption and faith playing a central role in a number of Cave's songs, the idea isn't completely far-fetched.

Cave's "I Do, Dear, I Do" is a ballad of mixed emotions, a jumble of reminiscing and frustration at the memory of a loved one who is now with another man. Or as Cave describes him, "a gibbering goon." Very few can seduce with venom as Cave can.

So as he wishes his former love a "happy Christmas," and straddles the line between anger and devotion for seven minutes, Cave captures the grown-up mess of feelings that nails precisely what it means to have a "blue Christmas." 

-- Todd Martens

Christmas in Harlem as seen by Kanye West and Louis Armstrong

Kanye West 2009 Grammys-Lawrence K Ho

Louis Armstrong-Johnny Cash by Les Leverett

It wouldn’t be a Kanye West record without at least a dash of ego, and sure enough, midway through the rapper’s holiday single “Christmas in Harlem,” in which West paints an atmospheric portrait of the holiday season in New York, he confesses, “My only question is, ‘Where my presents?’”

Mostly, however, it’s a charming trip through the hood that’s a bit sweet, a bit sexy and largely soaked in seasonal good spirits.

“Though it's 40 below the wind chill / And we wiping snow up off the windshield / It's still, wonderful night to be alive, baby,” West croons.

Rapper Cyhi the Prince also takes a playful verse as the voice of Santa in Harlem (“Thugs think I’m a blood / Cuz I won’t take this red suit off”), although that portion is missing from the iTunes download. The full version, also featuring Cam’ron, Vado, Jim Jones, Musiq Soulchild, Pusha-T and Big Sean, is available for download at West’s website. There's also an audio-only YouTube posting here.

West calls on Teyana Taylor to sing the chorus: “Christmas in Harlem / Right after autumn falls / Soaking it all in / Then we go hit the mall.”

OK, so Irving Berlin it’s not.  But it captures the mood of this time of year in Harlem, where I spent several days visiting friends a couple of years ago, ice skating at an outdoor rink on a frosty afternoon one day, catching the A train to Central Park on New Year’s Day to take a morning stroll as a light snow fell.

That theme also appealed to Louis Armstrong, whose recording of  “Christmas Night in Harlem” often surfaces at this time of year, if not as widely as his Yuletide classic “Zat You, Santa Claus?”
“Christmas Night in Harlem” dates to the early '30s, and was a Top 20 hit for Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. It was written by composer Raymond Scott and lyricist Mitchell Parish for the Broadway revuew “Blackbirds of 1934,” Parish being the Songwriters Hall of Fame member perhaps best known for his lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”

For his recording, Armstrong tweaked a couple of racist lines that were typical of Tin Pan Alley songwriting — lines that were sung by celebrated songwriter-vocalist Johnny Mercer and trombonist Jack Teagarden in Whiteman’s recording. (It also was recorded by Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra and several other big bands in the '30s and '40s.)

Satchmo, however, transformed the original race-specific references (“black and tans” become “people,” while “the old colored neighborhood” becomes “that good old neighborhood”) into the universal language that made him a beloved musical ambassador to the world.

Here’s a link to a YouTube posting of the Armstrong recording (audio only), paired with Dinah Washington’s “Ol’ Santa.” Armstrong’s song starts at the 2:40 mark.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo (left): Kanye West at 2009 Grammy Awards. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

Photo (right): Louis Armstrong with Johnny Cash in 1970. Credit: Les Leverett / Sony Legacy

Bela Fleck on taking holiday music to new places

Béla Fleck Eggnog - Senor McGuire 
Musicians who explore the fringes of music as we know it often seem to operate in a parallel dimension with few points of reference for the average music fan.

This historically has been true in jazz, where such innovators as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus abandoned the rules established by their predecessors and opened new sonic vistas, leaving many fans in the dust with their experimentations.

Banjoist Béla Fleck chose an instrument most closely associated with tradition-minded country, bluegrass and folk music, but he's also a longtime jazz aficionado who has typically thought and played with the anything-goes sense of his jazz heroes. On the surface, that makes his current holiday music tour look somewhat curious.

But there’s a method to his musical madness, as he told me when we chatted recently for a profile that appears in Friday’s Calendar. He spoke about why he and his band, the Flecktones, chose to record an album of holiday tunes two years ago, and how they applied their penchant for experimentation to yuletide standards such as “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas” for the record,  “Jingle All the Way,” which went on to collect a Grammy for best pop instrumental album of the year.

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Live review: Aimee Mann skips the merry and bright in Christmas concert

The singer-songwriter and other musical guests at Largo at the Coronet take a sometimes skeptical, sometimes irreverent, and often funny take on the holidays.


As a piece of dramatic scaffolding, the holiday variety show offers plenty of room from which to hang well-worn material: Christmas music, bits of children's theater, jokes about what to get your mother-in-law. The form doesn't typically include repeated references to Charles Manson, but that didn't stop Aimee Mann from bringing up the convicted killer several times Monday night at Largo at the Coronet, where she and a group of all-star pals played the second of three Christmas concerts scheduled there this week.

"Will you please stop talking about murder?" pleaded comedian Paul F. Tompkins with mock exasperation near the end of the two-hour show.

A longtime fixture (along with her husband, Michael Penn) on the L.A. singer-songwriter scene, Mann takes a skeptical approach to the yuletide repertoire. (The Largo engagement marked the fourth year in a row that she's played Christmas shows, either in Southern California or on the road.) On Monday she described her objections to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" "on moral grounds" and singled out "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" as her favorite holiday song.

"It's a little spooky and a little creepy," she explained. "That's how I like to think of myself."

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Not your usual seasonal sounds

From Bob Dylan tackling 'Here Comes Santa Claus' to the "Avenue Q' puppets doing 'Ave Maria,' there's something for everyone.


It's become an annual ritual -- the flooding of the music market with dozens, if not hundreds, of holiday-themed titles, and this year is no exception. Plenty of artists are releasing festive recordings, and labels are hoping all that good cheer will translate to some sales uplift.

In the mix are offerings from a crystalline-voiced would-be American Idol and from a sandpaper-throated bona fide American icon. Sting does some musical time traveling and one adventurous experimentalist beams the spirit of the season into the vastness of deep space.

What follows is a look at some of the most interesting collections available right now:

ARCHULETA_CHRISTMAS+75 David Archuleta, "Christmas From the Heart" (19/Jive): America's favorite elfin pop idol, Archie sounds every bit as spot-on key and invested with holiday reverence and good cheer as humanly possible -- and nearly as predictable. But given that "American Idol" is about meeting popular expectations rather than exceeding (much less defying) them, it's somehow comforting that within the familiar arrangements and production touches are a few intriguing touches such as the musical quotations of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" into his version of "Angels We Have Heard on High."  * * 1/2 (Two and a half stars)

Bocelli_75 Andrea Bocelli, "My Christmas" (Decca). There's always an audience for yuletide music sung in a romantic tenor voice, and this year, Bocelli's under the tree. He's brought along several vocal partners including Natalie Cole, Mary J. Blige and Reba McEntire -- even the Muppets and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. As usual with operatic singers for whom English is a second language, Bocelli tends to succeed better with carols than with pop tunes.  * * 1/2 (Two and a half stars)

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