The world might still need a boost, but the New Standards certainly brought some much-needed joy to the Twin Cities this weekend.
"Joy" was the word du jour as the trio of local music vets returned to the State Theatre for one of the warmest — and goofiest — installments yet of their 14 annual holiday concerts. Not only did the jazzy pop trio have to put off last year's shows because of COVID, co-leader Chan Poling has also been on hiatus for the past four months undergoing medical treatment.
"Welcome back, everybody!" the singer/pianist of Suburbs fame emphatically yelled Friday to start the antics-filled first of three shows.
Among the jolly add-ons this year were everything from the usual swaying trees and dancing Satan to a surprise roller-skating routine and an extra-unusual musical duck (yes, the waterfowl kind). All that was in addition, of course, to the standard cast of dozens of Twin Cities musicians.
Never referencing his own health outlook — nor showing any signs of illness — Poling ended the two-hour performance (plus intermission) by dedicating his original "Christmastime Next Year" to two men he lost in his personal life this past year, his father, Stephen Poling, and father-in-law, Walter Mondale.
TNS co-founder John Munson also paid homage to another Minnesota hero midshow, literary fixture Robert Bly, who died two weeks ago. The poet had appeared at the New Standards' first holiday concerts in 2008 at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater.
"It felt like the biggest coup of all time," Munson recalled before poet and songwriter Timothy Frantzich read Bly's poem "Stealing Sugar From the Castle" — emphasizing the many references to "joy" in it, including the closing line, "My sentence was a thousand years of joy."
After an off year that felt like a prison sentence, Poling, Munson and their musically whimsical vibraphonist bandmate Steve Roehm seemed to be on a mission to make the rest of the show extra-merry.
They added some of the most feel-good songs of all time, starting with Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" as opener, sung by regular guest Cameron Kinghorn (Nooky Jones, King Pari). Other comforting "new standards" thrown in included the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage," Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown" and Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" — the latter sung by rising blues/soul star Annie Mack, the standout newcomer at this year's shows.
Mack aside, the other newbies in the 2021 lineup had familial connections to the band members.
Stephen Kung, who stepped up to sing a serene original he wrote during quarantine titled "Peace on Earth," is also the trumpeter in Poling's Suburbs. Ava Bella Norvell-Levy, who beautifully raised mental illness awareness for the holidays while covering the Don McLean song "Vincent," is the daughter of show regular Adam Levy.
Not a newcomer on his own, Matt Wilson brought along his elegant, new all-acoustic "orchestra" to deliver their album track "Beyond." They also joined Munson for two songs by his and Wilson's old band Trip Shakespeare, the title track of their album "Lulu" (marking its 30th anniversary) as well as the must-do "Snow Days."
Like "Snow Days," about half the show was material culled from previous years, including jazzed-up renditions of "Silent Night" and "My Favorite Things" sung by the show's MVP vocalist Aby Wolf. Other welcome repeats included the swinging "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (with the exuberant dancer "Rupert" dressed as Satan) and Jeremy Messersmith's disorderly seasonal favorite "Let's Ditch Christmas" (in which the singer stripped down to Hawaiian attire).
Any sign of the New Standards' holiday run becoming a little too standard flew out the window (though not literally) when the aforementioned duck appeared. They called him "Ben Affquack," and his waddling webfeet kicked out a beat before a version of the Suburbs' "Love Is the Law" accompanied by the drum troupe Batucada Do Norte.
What a reminder that few musicians have more fun putting on holiday concerts than these gentlemen — even (or especially) when things get serious the rest of the year.