Reviews: Indigo Girls and Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks Holiday Releases

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by Jim Blum

Indigo Girls
Holly Happy Days
(Vanguard Records)

It’s so easy to listen to the same old holiday songs, and the same old versions of them. If the holidays have become ritual for you and not joyous, open yourself up (instead of a package) and discover something original from Amy Ray and Emily Sailers. This album features a combination of songs you know with many originals, a forgotten Woody Guthrie song, and another recently borrowed. Recorded in Nashville with a super band, each arrangement is unique.

The album opens with “The Wonder Song,” a bluegrass hard driver. Featured are Alison Brown on banjo and Luke Bulla on fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. The two are also featured on what may be the album’s best song: “I Feel the Christmas Spirit.” This song has a delightful groove and a delightful message about the origin of Christmas morning, expanding to the gift of friends and family at this time of year.

Speaking of friends, many showed up at the request of Emily & Amy. Janis Ian and Mary Gauthier add harmonies to “Happy Joyous Hanukkah,” written by Woody Guthrie over 50 years ago. Emily’s dad plays piano on “Peace Child.” Lloyd Maines plays dobro or pedal steel throughout. A highlight is the more recently written “It Really Is A Wonderful Life,” by Chely Wright and covered two years ago my Mindy Smith. Chely joined The Indigo Girls with Shawn Mullins on a recent tour.

The songs are different stylistically from each other, and producer Peter Collins has done a masterful job of creating balance and surprise. This is not shopping mall music, and it’s a joy to know that some musicians will not settle for what’s already been done.

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Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
Crazy for Christmas
(Surf Dog)

Here’s another artist with a debut holiday release, and another very original one at that. After a 20 year absence, Dan Hicks has been back for several years making old swing new. This album only features three songs you’ve heard before: “Here Comes Santa Claus,” I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and “Carol of the Bells.” The others only Dan Hicks could pull off.

The opener “Christmas Mornin” borrows the music of the Hicks classic “Where’s the Money.” We discover by the album’s second song that reindeer need a break, which is why Santa is taking the train this year: “Santa’s Gotta Choo Choo.” The album’s funniest song is “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit” where a dress-up Santa can’t find his costume. The song is a message to the thief, and a revelation about eventual acceptance. Only at this time of year, unfortunately, can it be OK to get over having something stolen. Through the comedy perhaps, Hicks is sharing something he learned.

Coming close in the humor category is “Carol of the Bells.” Performed with scat vocals throughout by Hicks and the Lickettes, a surprise visit by the Chipmunks should have you rolling on the floor. You can also watch the little critters sing on Dan’s website.

Yes, the Hot Licks provide comic relief, but under it all is solid musicianship. Look out for the gypsy guitar leads by Gonzolo Bergara, who has appeared previously with Dan. (Dave Bell is featured on “Run Run Rudolph”) John Rosenberg plays piano, The Lickettes play kazoos, and Hicks himself plays the harmonica. In fact, that has always been what makes Hicks tick. The musicians play the part of the straight man, if you will, making the humor more unexpected. Enjoy Dan’s comeback for laughs or for the blues and swing; he’s a master at both, and this holiday release underlines that fact.

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