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Driftwood Last Minute Holiday Gifts Edition

Various Artists
Putumayo Presents A Family Christmas
Putumayo World Music

The Brian Setzer Orchestra
Christmas Comes Alive
Surfdog

The Christmas Jug Band
At The Holiday Highway
Globe

Various Artists
Putumayo Presents World Christmas Party
Putumayo World Music

With new tunes sounding old and classic songs sounding new, this year’s Yuletide has produced an incredible harvest of great music. Seasonal standards are transformed into African, Latin, reggae, polka, boogie-woogie, and neo-swing reworkings on the multi-artist Putumayo Presents A Family Christmas and Putumayo Presents World Christmas Party, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s Christmas Comes Alive, while At The Holiday Highway, the 5th CD by the northern California-based Christmas Jug Band, presents 16 original songs rooted in folk, jug band and skiffle traditions.

Diverse approaches to time-honored material are showcased by world music label, Putumayo’s latest entries into the Christmas discography. Putumayo Presents A Family Christmas includes such treats as Johnny Bragar’s acoustic version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” recorded exclusively for the compilation, Martin Sexton’s light jazz-folk take on “Holly Jolly Christmas,” a wild “Sleigh Ride,” by bluegrass mandolin wiz, Sam Bush, a swinging big band version of Louis Armstrong’s “Is Zat You Santa Claus,” and jazz-flavored tunes by Leon Redbone (“Let It Snow”), the Christmas Jug Band featuring Angeli Strehli and Maria Muldaur (“Boogie Woogie Santa Claus”) and New Orleans’ Lars Edegran and his Santa Claus Revelers featuring Big Al Carson (“Frosty The Snowman”).

The global spread of the Yuletide repertoire is the focus of the 12-songs on “Putumayo Presents World Christmas Party.” While including tunes by American artists—Charles Brown (“Christmas Comes But Once A Year”), Texas polka-rockers Brave Combo (“The Christmas Song”), New Orlean’s Heritage Hall Jazz Band (“Barra De Navidad Blues”), and neo-bluegrass banjo player Alison Brown with her quartet and fiddler Joe Craven (“Carol And The Kings”), it’s the inclusion of non-American musicians, from Haiti, Cuba, Brabados, France, and Martinique, that gives the CD its flavor. Highlights include a reggae-ized version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” by late Jamaican vocalist Jacob Miller, a slack key version of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ by Hawaiian duo, Keahiwai, and funky versions of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (Kei Te Haere Mai A Hana Koko)” by New Zealand’s H.K. Crew featuring K11NA and Latin-jazz reeds player Ed Calle with Cuba-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

With the release of Christmas Comes Alive, his third Christmas CD, and first recorded in concert (in Knoxville, Tennessee in late 2009), ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer continues to re-invent himself as one of the season’s most dynamic performers. Backed by a 19-piece orchestra, Setzer sets the holiday’s classic tunes into a big band swing-meets-rockabilly frenzy of sizzling-hot guitar picking and built-for-rock vocals. Stirring the passion with turbo-charged re-workings of the standards (“Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland”, “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and “Jingle Bells”), Setzer turns the flame even hotter with takes of Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Though an updating of the Stray Cats’ 1981 hit, “Stray Cat Strut,” veers from the album’s theme, it’s combination, in a medley, with “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is a natural fit. The 15-tune CD culminates with a nearly-8 minute-long instrumental treatment of “The Nutcracker Suite.”

Featuring some of the San Francisco Bay area’s most accomplished musicians, the Christmas Jug Band comes together for a brief period each year. Nevertheless, the group has continued to place its indelible stamp on the Yuletide. With their 5th CD, On The Holiday Highway, the group takes the Christmas traditions a step further. Earlier recordings centered on the singing and tongue-in-jowl songwriting of Dan Hicks, but “On The Holiday Highway” spotlights the depth of talent within the band. Tim Eschliman (Commander Cody band, Rhythmtown-Jive), Austin deLone, and Paul Rogers (“Those Darn Accordions) divide most of the lead vocals and songwriting credits. DeLone offers a heart-melting look at his parent’s meeting (“Jug Band Romance”), while Eschliman closes the proceedings by reworking Huey P. Smith’s “High Blood Pressure” as “High Stack O’Presents.” Though he mostly sticks to percussion (his original instrument), Hicks kicks things into overdrive every time he steps into the spotlight with humorous parodies of Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” (“Santa, The Man”) and Tin Pan Alley classic, “My Blue Heaven” (“Jolly Ol’ Soul”). Guest appearances by harmonica player Norton Buffalo, pianist Mike Duke (Wet Willie, Delbert McClinton), Country Joe McDonald, who sings lead on an original tune, “Dirty Claus Rag,” and Hicks’ bakground singer, the Lickettes, along with kazoos, accordions, slide whistles, and washboards add to the fun.

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

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