Swingin' Silent Night

When it comes to popular music, Americans really dig the roots. So here's a triple play of tinsel tunes recently released by three different groups, each exploring a separate branch of the roots of rock'n'roll -- swing, blues and jug band music:Asleep at the Wheel. Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all (High Street Records). This lively set opens with a salute to the Lone Star State's multi-cultural make-up, with a surprisingly effective vocal pairing of singers Ray Benson and Tish Hinojosa on "Feliz Navidad." Then bandleader Benson, steel guitarist Cindy Cashdollar, organist Augie Meyers and the boys deliver 12 more swing-wrapped tracks including originals such as the exuberant "Merry Texas Christmas, Y'All" and the sardonic "Christmas in Jail." The Wheel also rolls out a few songs straight, such as "Pretty Paper" with Willie Nelson singing lead, before hepping up others such as "Swingin' Drummer Boy" or "Jingle Bell Boogie." And with "Silent Night," the Sleepers dream it up "both" ways -- one version features Austin yodelling sensation Don Walser singing a duet with Willie Nelson, while the disc closer is a "Swingin' Silent Night."Roomful of Blues. Roomful of Christmas (Bullseye Blues/Rounder). New England's venerable nine-piece horn band breathes fire into ten tunes split down the middle between well-roasted chestnuts such as "Let It Snow" and "White Christmas" and less heard numbers like Fats Domino's "I Told Santa Claus" and Lowell Fulsom's "I Want to Spend Christmas With You." The Roomful horns -- trombonist Carl Querfurth, trumpeter Bob Enos, saxophonist Rich Lataille and baritone saxist Doug James -- really go to town on the Chuck Berry rocker "Run, Rudolph, Run," while vocalist Sugar Ray Norcia shines on the Eddie Durham/Count Basie/Jimmy Rushing composition "Good Morning Blues" and on the bittersweet ballad, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Produced by the multi-talented Carl Querfurth at Normandy Sound in Warren, Rhode Island, Roomful's new ten-track Christmas package will delight r'n'b fans but will also entertain anyone who enjoys the sound of a horn section hard at work re-inventing well worn riffs as something fresh and festive.Rounding out the current Roomful lineup is a rivetting rhythm section: guitarist Chris Vachon, pianist Matt McCabe, bassist Ken "Doc" Grace and drummer John Rossi. If you like the band's bluesy take on this celebratory season, you'd also appreciate its other three Bullseye discs, "Under One Roof, Turn It On! Turn It Up!" and "Dance All Night".The Christmas Jug Band. Rhythm on the Roof. (Globe Records). The third holiday hootenanny issued by Dan Hicks and company shows the intrepid acoustic improvisors cutting up on a handful of several unfamiliar -- but nonetheless merry -- tunes such as Commander Cody's "Daddy's Drinkin' Up Our Christmas," Hick's own "The Real Deal," accordionist Paul Rogers' "Santa Don't Do It," and Norton Buffalo's "If I Don't Have a Chimney." Buffalo's chromatic harmonica adds a bluesy tintannabulation to the Christmas Jug Band's version of "Silver Bells," while Lance Dickerson's rub-board rings out on Tim Eschliman's "Washboard Road." Although the seven originals enjoy fetching arrangements, funky instrumentation and funny lyrics, what the Jug Band does best is adapt old jazz standards as new, humorous Christmas tunes. Here Hicks takes an old Benny Goodman Orchestra number called "Exactly Like You" and transforms it into December's oft-heard kid claim, "I Know What I'm Gettin.'" The same treatment works well for Big Boy Crudup's "Your Red Wagon" (known here as "That's His Red Wagon") and for "Mr. Sandman" (in this case, "Mr. Santa"). And when Hicks lets loose with his eggnog'n'whiskey vocals and frolicks over his fretboard with those fast-paced jazz chords, the music fairly shimmers. Produced by Tim Eschliman, "Rhythm on the Roof"'s 14 tracks also include a cool "Winter Wonderland" and Charles Brown's classic blues, "Merry Christmas Baby." Perhaps best remembered for his leadership of the drummerless 1970s combo, Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks, the singer/guitarist has apparently abdicated leadership of the Christmas Jug Band, no doubt realizing the futility of "leading" any unit as inherently anarchic as a Baker's Dozen free-thinking acoustic musicians who only get together once a year. Nevertheless, Hicks still sings lead on five of the 14 tracks here. To their credit and despite their loose-knit approach, however, Hicks' bandmates transcend his signature sound to create a wild and wooly holiday ambiance all their own. The group's first album, "Mistletoe Jam" got the party off on the right foot, while its second, "Treeside Hoot", grew fully decorated. The current Christmas Jug Band features Dan Hicks, Tim Eschliman, Austin deLone, Paul Rogers, Norton Buffalo, Lance Dickerson, Bill DeKuiper, Gregory Leroy Dewey, Nik Phelps, Paul Rogers, Blake Richardson, Paul Robinson, Jim Rothermel, Ziggy Eschliman, Lesley deLone and Teale Eschliman. Contact: Globe Records, P.O. Box 5523, Mill Valley, CA 94942; or via World Wide Web at globerecords.com.

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