Given the staggering amount of unrest in the world with environmental disasters ( volcanic eruptions in New Zealand, flooding in France and Italy, glacial meltdowns in Greenland, and rampaging wild fires in Australia, Brazil, and California ), political chaos ( elections in Britain; impeachment hearings in North America; and riots in India, Iraq, Paris and Hong Kong ) and mounting military tensions, the 2019 holidays can best be described as grim. Fortunately, there were recent concerts in Chicago which not only seemed fitting for the mood but also managed to brighten it.
First up ( and far less depressing than it sounds ), The Old Town School of Folk Music held "Killer Ballads: A Night of Murder Ballads and Other Songs About Death" on Nov. 22. The show, curated by Andrew Sa, presented a wildly varied assemblage of artists and music in a tone that veered from heartbreak to mirth.
Featuring Jonas Friddle, Lindsay Wineberg, Shelly Miller, Jess McIntosh and many more ( most of them employees of the school ), the concert seamlessly blended pop, folk, country and contemporary music. As expected, there were somber moments ( Sa's dedication of Tom Waits' "Georgia" to Black Lives Matter as well as his hushed readings of "Miss Otis Regrets" and Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" ) along with humorous offerings ( McIntosh's explosive "Goodbye Earl," Liz Chidester's mock innocent "I Didn't Know the Gun was Loaded" and Sa's big band doo-wop version of "Smoke Smoke Smoke." ). The surprise success of the show gave the school an excuse to greenlight a second event for 2020.
On a much rowdier note, Jim Heath ( also known as The Reverend Horton Heat ) brought his "Horton's Holiday Hayride Show" to a packed House of Blues on Nov. 29 and turned all that somber Christmas holiness into a revved-up sock hop. Openers The Voodoo Glow Skulls and vocalist Efrem Schulz ( who wore a poncho and luchador mask ) dragged the audience into the proper spirit by lunging off the stage and onto the dance floor for a joyous blast of California ska-core.
That same audience sat politely when Heat sang restrained versions of "Silver Bells" and "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" but the gig was up when he dug into his rockabilly-flavored discography ( "Bad Reputation," "Let Me Teach You how to Eat," "Psychobilly Freakout," "Drinkin' and Smokin' Cigarettes" ). Mid-set he brought out Texas blues/roots icon Dave Alvin ( of The Blasters ) for a blistering set of his solo classics. This volatile mix had audience membersmany of whom wore '50s-style attiredoing The Pony and The Twist all night.
By contrast, "Holiday Horror"which Jake Vgods hosted at the Empty Bottle on Dec. 3looked like a Christmas show from another galaxy while proving that a helping of queerness is just the thing to freshen old traditions. Vgodswho wore a a fetching lime-green utility suit that seemed to be taped to his bodypresented his new video ( "Swiss Army" ) along with other favorites ( a naughty "Santa Baby" with guest Santa JuJu Minx, plus "Pocket Monster" and "Acrobatic Apparatus" ). Other performers included Mary Williamson ( as an overheated Satan performing a demented "The Little Drummer Boy" ), Gabriel Anaya ( who sang a note-perfect a capella aria with his own pre-recorded voice ), Cae Monae ( who wowed the crowd with her raw star power ) and Alex Grelle and crew as Kathie Lee Gifford performing an aerobics workout from The Twilight Zone.