Thursday December 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Life as a musician has its strange moments, but few stranger than the two weeks Stefan Amidon and his mates in the Sweetback Sisters spent in the recording studio earlier this year.

In sweltering July weather, Amidon and the band headed into Philadelphia’s Turtle Studios armed with instruments, song sheets and ... warm clothes and sweaters.

There, they set to work recording a Christmas album, and it didn’t take them long to catch the Christmas spirit -- with a little help from their friends.

They put up a Christmas tree, cranked up the air conditioning so they needed those sweaters and munched on Christmas cookies that friends brought by.

"There are people who get sick of Christmas, and others who just love it year-round. Once we started singing, we kind of came around," said Amidon.

The result is "The Sweetback Sisters’ Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular," a CD which tries -- and comes close -- to capturing the spirit of the band’s annual holiday events.

"We’re trying to catch the sing-along spirit and sound ... the sound of having a family sing-along at your house. It’s not always the most harmonious sound, but it’s a joyous sound," said Amidon.

It can be pretty harmonious, too.

Through recording the CD, Amidon and his fellow Sweetbacks came to know and love these songs better than ever -- even in July.


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"Playing them, you do realize they’re beautiful songs. Some of them we don’t even gussy up. Other ones, we arrange the hell out of them," he said.

Armed with the new CD, The Sweetback Sisters will be in Amidon’s hometown to present their fourth annual Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular this Sunday at 7:30 p.m., at the New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St.

Sunday’s show will feature the Sweetbacks performing tracks off their new CD with their signature sound, which Amidon describes as country, honky-tonk from the ‘50s and ‘60s with touches of early rock and roll. The band features Emily Miller on lead vocals, fiddle and guitar, Zara Bode on lead vocals and guitar, Amidon on percussion and vocals, Jesse Milnes on fiddle, guitar and vocals, Ross Bellenoit on electric guitar and vocals and Peter Bitenc on bass.

There will be plenty of chances to sing-along on Sunday -- song sheets will be handed out at the door -- and Amidon knows the hometown Brattleboro fans will not be shy about joining in.

"We always know we can count on Brattleboro for a sing-along crowd. For us, it’s really nice when we don’t have to work to get people to sing-along," said Amidon.

This fun event also includes a Christmas trivia quiz, with prizes.

The Sweetback Sisters never set out become part of anyone’s holiday traditions, but they never put a stop to it either.

They started the Country Christmas Singalong in 2009 at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first year brought an intimate gathering of family and friends close to the stage with lyric sheets so all could sing along. Sweetback singer Miller was first inspired to host a sing-along while participating in a Christmas charity event in Chicago.

The next year, they performed a couple of holidays, including one in Brattleboro’s Hooker-Dunham Theater, but really hadn’t planned to make it an annual event, until they started getting calls from people eager to book Christmas shows.

The shows are fun, funky and friendly, but they can have their serious moments, too. Amidon recalls ending one particularly rowdy Brooklyn show with a sublime a cappella version of "Silent Night."

"It was really beautiful. It kind of transcended the kitsch," he said.

This year’s tour includes Rockland and Portland, Maine, Pawtucket, R.I., Boston and Northampton, Mass., where they just played at the Iron Horse, and two shows at the Jalopy Theatre in Brooklyn.

All this -- and the new CD, too.

The album begins with "Christmas Boogie" by the Davis Sisters. The song is a retelling of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas with a 1950s boogie-woogie twist. Next up is a version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" that opens with a ripping quote from "Bonanza." Following that is a straight-up sweet rendition of "Winter Wonderland."

The band’s fiddler, Milnes, writes the only original with "The Nine Days of Christmas." The song is a take-off on the "Twelve Days of Christmas," infused with the classic country themes heartache and drinking.

"It’s more of a drinking song set at Christmas," said Amidon.

The album carries on as a genre-bending sleigh ride through time. The Stanley Brothers’ "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" is a gospel tune that showcases the band’s four-part bluegrass harmony singing. "Hark the Harolds Angel’s Sing" is a tribute to Jingle Cats, performed as "meows in the round" to Casio keyboard accompaniment.

"Christmas Island" features drummer Amidon’s vocals on a Christmas canoe ride to the tropics. "Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year" is a tribute to the queen of the country kiss-off, Loretta Lynn. And the torch song tradition is alive and well with Bode’s rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Sunday’s concert has an extra dimension of "home for the holidays" for Amidon and Zara Bode, who recently moved to Brattleboro.

"The Sweetback Sisters have always used Brattleboro as one of their home bases, but we’re particular excited about this one," said Amidon, whose only complaint is that, as a working musician, he doesn’t get to spend enough time at home. "We’re home for a week hanging pictures on the walls, and then we’re off."

The Sweetback Sisters are still putting together plans for 2013, but they recently bought a van, aided by a successful $10,000 Kickstarter campaign. They also just finished a music video of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Tickets to the Brattleboro show are $15 in advance, $18 at the door. For tickets, visit www.brattleborotix.com. For information, call 718-916-1544 or www .thesweetbacksisters.com.