“Merrily Caroling: A Backstage Pass Christmas” kicks off with the Rusty Wright Band’s “Santa’s in Jail”, an original swingin’ blues song that sets the mood and tone of the show. The Verve Pipe, which achieved national success for its 1996 song “The Freshman,” then changes the tone immediately with a soft and sweet ballad, “Merrily Caroling.”
Next up, Thom Jayne and the Nomads bring the program’s intensity down another notch with its version of “Silent Night,” richly blending their uniquely dense and multi-cultural style into the Christmas classic.
The tempo and the volume rise later in the show with Frog & the Beeftones’ “Blue Christmas,” a unique jam that brings a refreshing bit of melancholy to the season. Next, Orrick Ewing and his band bring us “Christmas Love,” a soulful R&B instrumental featuring rolling guitar, saxophone, and piano riffs that sound right at home in the Christmas season.
But much of the middle of the program seems reserved for songs that we’ve either heard before, or that sound so much like old Christmas songs that we can’t tell the difference.
Larry McCray breathes some life into his tune, “Santa Wants Some Lovin’ Too,” by occasionally launching into a great guitar solo, but these come in the midst of a seven-minute song that doesn’t sound like much.
Other acts perform simple covers of classic holiday songs, but none with the same level of stylistic imprinting that Thom Jayne and the Nomads display earlier on.
Groove Merchant turns “O Tenenbaum” into a sort of Christmas medley, jamming out some great solos amidst a swing backdrop, but without the chorus establishing the tune of “O Tenenbaum” as bookends, the song hardly sounds like Christmas at all and, if given a different name and chorus, it could easily be played all year round.
Bowery’s alt-rock song “Kisses for Christmas” and Delilah DeWylde & The Lost Boys’ rockabilly “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” both add something different late in the program, but the loose fit of the subject matter to the holiday season just makes me wish the bands would crank out one of their more signature tracks.
The show ends with a rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Run, Run, Rudolph” from The Lash, which does the classic justice and takes us out of the show on a high note.
The hardest part about putting on a Christmas show like this is not a dearth of material. There are plenty of classic songs that everyone knows and that have remained popular over the years, not necessarily because they’re superior to modern bands’ take on the holidays, but because they have a certain timeless feel and a ubiquity that newer songs don’t have.
The strongest performances in “Merrily Caroling” are either unique covers of older songs, or original tunes that only seem tangentially related to the holidays. The originals that seem tailor-made for Christmas just don’t sound quite as good.
This isn’t always the bands’ fault, merely the result of a certain institutionalization of Christmas music over the years that makes it difficult for original material to gain any sort of traction when compared to the established classics. Most viewers will likely find several performances in this program to enjoy, though your mileage may vary, depending on which songs entertain and which ones don’t.
´Merrily Caroling: A Backstage Pass Christmas´
Premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 22; repeats at 8 and 11 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 24 ,and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 25, on WKAR-23