The extra-festive cha-cha-cha moves put on “Silver Bells”—which first opens the door, welcoming you into Jingle All the Way—announces this is not your run-of-the-mill Christmas party. Nope: The next hour is one whose revelers from Blue Heart and Nola Blue Records go out of their way to avoid regifting familiar presents from Christmases Past in the same faded wrapping. Several even build their novelty entirely from scratch. Workshop creativity fills the air. Not attic mustiness.
Seasonal workhorses get newly tasked. The coquettish “Santa Baby” is sassed and sashayed by Lil’ Red & the Rooster—except with the kind of swinging zip that comes from Pascal Fouquet’s acoustic guitar spending quality time alongside a stack of Django Reinhardt records. Teresa James leans heavily on the effervescing horns of her Rhythm Tramps to jolly up “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” with New Orleans flair, wobbling down the street with a beery, off-kilter stumble. Given more than a few brassy swigs of intoxicating horns, “Merry Christmas Baby”—once a silent-night, fireside croon for Charles Brown—loosens and loudens up into a blowout bash, bounding around the room with piano keys flapping away, guitar working up into a sweat, drums and bass in coordinated thump, and Laura Tate fueling the fire with her rousing refrains.
The cooldown arrives with “River.” Tiffany Pollack, tapping into the warm vulnerability of her voice’s natural songbird qualities in place of the hardened edge more often required of 2019’s Blues in My Blood, beautifully skates away on heartbreak’s icy glaze, hugging Joni Mitchell’s original melodic template. Three minutes and thirty-three seconds of melancholy majesty at the root of a true, blue Christmas.
In fully keeping with the spirit of Christmas Present, Freddie King’s kid-brother Benny Turner invents his blue Christmas by stringing hard luck, rather than twinkling lights, throughout “I Want Some Christmas Cheer,” as the band vamps on a fatback organ and chiming tubular bells. Despite Rick Vito’s regretful confession, “I Was a Bad Boy This Year” is anything but a buzzkill. Instead, it’s a Chuck Berry-like rock-and-roller. However, Chuck’s own “Christmas,” off 1970’s Back Home, is here and freshly funked by Clarence Spady. Yet not even Mark Cameron’s clever talking-blues, “Nick’s Place,” can prepare for “Slim Down Santa.” Jim Koeppel’s appeal for the Big Man to “lose a little weight or you’ll need another reindeer Christmas night” is spiced, all the while, by Mrs. Claus’ naughty incentive at night’s end. Consider the eggnog spiked at that point.
Then—uh!—what to your wandering ears should appear, but James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” as a twitchingly funky souvenir.
Just as they got the party started with that danceable “Silver Bells,” those shiny, sparkling Texas Horns return, 14 tracks later, to wind down the merrymaking. “Even Santa Gets the Blues” fittingly bottoms out on John Mills’ baritone saxophone solo.
In the December chill, Jingle All the Way makes a mighty handy firestarter for Yuletide wangdangdoodles.
Label: Blue Heart Records
Release Date: 10/20/2023
Artist Website: https://www.nola-blue.com/
Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski