Celebrating their 10th year of literally setting a new standard for local holiday concerts, the New Standards could have been forgiven this year for overplaying the nostalgia card during this most wonderful time of year.
Instead, the stylish but unstuffy jazz-pop trio once again lived up to the “new” in its name Friday at its first of three State Theatre shows, featuring a couple of dozen other noteworthy Twin Cities musicians. New guests and fresh songs were introduced, as always. So were moments that tastefully, lighthandedly reflected the somber news and contentious climate of the less-than-wonderful year that was 2016.
Tributes to Prince, David Bowie and even Gene Wilder were dropped into the 2½-hour performance. Each posthumous homage featured the right balance of reverence but playfulness at the heart of the New Standards, formed 11 years ago by Twin Cities rock vets Chan Poling (of the Suburbs) and John Munson (Semisonic) with vibraphonist Steve Roehm.
Prince’s “Controversy” — sung by regular Standards collaborator Aby Wolf with Munson — turned into a dance party involving sashaying Christmas trees and a costumed, horned Satan. Jayhawks frontman Gary Louris sang Bowie’s “Starman” under kitschy computer graphics of an intergalactic Baby Jesus. And indie-folker Jeremy Messersmith transformed into a Vaudevillian song-and-dance man — complete with a twirling cane — to raise up Wilder’s “Willy Wonka” anthem “Pure Imagination.
On the current-events end, the nation’s president-elect came up like a lump of coal twice in the production: once during a big-band spin through “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (key line: “Stink! Stank! Trump!”), and again when the aforementioned Satan dancer (local stage-crashing fixture Rupert) didn’t show up on cue in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
“Goodbye Satan, hello Donald Trump!” Munson quipped. Poling dryly added from his piano seat, “We’re gonna send a Christmas card to the White House. It’ll be OK.”
At least one politician, St. Paul Mayor (and gubernatorial prospect) Chris Coleman, earned applause as part of a four-man bagpipe band in kilts that turned the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” into a true blowout. Even more laudable, the Batucada do Norte percussion ensemble added a Brazilian thickness to New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”
This year’s standout newbie, Cameron Kinghorn of the R&B/soul band Nooky Jones admirably filled in for Donny Hathaway in “This Christmas” — “A song I’ve wanted to do since we started this,” Munson said. Not so Christmas-y but equally jolly, Chastity Brown unwrapped a passionate reading of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do.”
Some of the most remarkable moments involved bold reinventions of older songs. Dessa previewed her upcoming Minnesota Orchestra concerts (April 14-15) with a hauntingly rearranged “Sound the Bells.” Less convincingly, the Standards remade “Silent Night” into a full-on, Thelonious Monk-like jazz epic with Wolf on vocals. Some songs just can’t be messed with too much.
One overall downside to the Standards messing with their formula each year: This year there simply wasn’t enough of them. The trio yielded often to guests even while revisiting some highlights of the prior nine years, including Adam Levy of the Honeydogs singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (from the year the show was somewhat dubiously cowboy-themed), and Messersmith doing his would-be Sun Country Airlines anthem “Let’s Ditch Christmas.”
Near show’s end, though, the Standards thankfully took back the spotlight. Munson sang his old band Trip Shakespeare’s “Snow Days” with the song’s originator, Matt Wilson, popping up for the last verse. The encore ended with Poling and Munson trading verses in their spirited original “Christmas Time Next Year.” Some songs just can’t be skipped.