The spirit of Christmas was at an all-time low this year in the New Standards’ holiday shows. The spirit of adventure, though — which is what made these irreverent concerts a seasonal favorite in the first place — soared.
Not one yuletide classic made it into the set list at the State Theatre this year, unless you count the comically fumbled “Jingle Bells” attempt that kicked off the concert Friday. Co-leader Chan Poling tried to plunk out the familiar melody on his grand piano but something — or, more accurately, everything — got in his way.
“I don’t know if I can get it up this year,” the Twin Cities rock vet of Suburbs fame muttered as he stopped playing. “There’s just … so much.”
Instead of “ ’Tis the Season,” the theme offered by the New Standards and myriad guests in their two-hour, two-night 2017 holiday shows was “Love Conquers All.” Not only did it make something of a political statement, the let-love-rule message was also a way of keeping the enduringly popular shows fresh in their 11th annual run.
Poling and his bandmates John Munson (Semisonic, Trip Shakespeare) and Steve Roehm (vibraphonist extraordinaire) delivered the holly-jolly show tune “We Need a Little Christmas” for a proper opening number, complete with dancers, Christmas lights and their expanded lineup with strings, horns and backup singers. But the rest of the show was conspicuously, defiantly defined by love songs.
The turnstile of guest singers and their warm touchy-feely musings began with Nooky Jones singer Cameron Kinghorn, who sailed through the Delfonics’ R&B classic “La La (Means I Love You).” A white-jacketed Jeremy Messersmith was next, with a Catskills-worthy big-band version of “Everything Is Magical,” from his ukulele album. Then came Twin Cities transplant Jonatha Brooke in red-sequined pants and a sparkly take on Billie Holiday’s “Them There Eyes.”
This year’s Standards shows included several guests who did their own thing. First and foremost was Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing fame, who had half the audience members bobbing in their seats and half scratching their heads as he tore through his Hollywood screed “Screenwriter’s Blues” with the full band.
Local scenemakers Dessa and Haley (nee Haley Bonar) also got out from under the Christmas tree and went out on a limb, Dessa with a dramatic airing of her new single “Good Grief” and Haley with a haunting and hallowed-sounding spin through “Last War.”
Haley also filled the role of honoring one of this year’s lost icons, lovingly strumming out Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” Rumors of Joni Mitchell’s death this year thankfully proved false, so the billowy “Both Sides Now” by Munson’s Trip Shakespeare mate Matt Wilson was just another piece in the love-song theme.
There was very little Christmas music, but the shows were still spiked with Christian flavor. Jearlyn Steele of the mighty Steeles gospel music family — they deliver their own holiday concerts Dec. 15-16 at the Fitzgerald Theater — raised U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to holy heights. Brooke also dropped in a godly performance of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.”
The lack of Christmas standards proved to be no big whoop, but the show could have used a little more of the New Standards themselves. Munson finally stepped out from behind his stand-up bass to bravely render Harry Nilsson’s sentimental showpiece “Remember.” Poling spiked the disco-flavored encore with the Suburbs’ “Music for Boys.”
Before the encore, Poling was joined by his original Suburbs bandmate Hugo Klaers for a singalong version of “Love Is the Law” — yet another love song, but one the sold-out audience knew almost as well as “Jingle Bells.”
89.3 the Current will rebroadcast the New Standards holiday shows on Dec. 24, 8 p.m., and Dec. 25, 8 a.m.