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Merry Melodies

Texas Christmas concerts spread musical cheer
Written by Michelle Burgess.

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Even before retailers slash the price of leftover Halloween candy, they’re decorating their windows with spray-on frost and setting their sound systems on an endless loop of Christmas carols. By the first week of December, even the jolliest of souls can start to feel a bit jaded.

Fortunately, the remedy for holiday weariness is as close as the nearest dance hall, concert venue, or church sanctuary. Live musical performances—a choir of schoolchildren singing at the mall, perhaps, or a lone saxophonist performing on a street corner—can cut through the commercialism and stress of the holiday season and reinvigorate flagging Christmas spirits.

Musicians across Texas present a range of holiday concerts that are as diverse as the Lone Star State itself. We’ve rounded up six can’t-miss options, including a few that travel to multiple places around the state spreading Christmas cheer.

Robert Earl Keen

Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee

Robert Earl Keen’s Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee Texas tour stops are December 8th in Greenville, 10th in Goliad, 15th in Midland, 17th in San Antonio, 20th in Austin, 26th in Houston, 29th in Dallas, and 30th in Fort Worth. www.robertearlkeen.com.

Robert Earl Keen has a tip for fans who want to maximize the experience of attending one of his annual Merry Christmas from the Fam-O-Lee shows: Pretend you’re at a Broadway show, not a concert.

“I like the whole idea of this being a show from beginning to end,” says Keen. “It works better when people come in on time, when it starts, as though they are at the theater.”

An offshoot of Keen’s 1994 song by the same name, the stage show combines music—Keen’s most popular songs, new releases, holiday classics, and covers that fit the year’s theme—as well as a bit of comedy. Fam-O-Lee feels like a festive sing-along with a smidge of Hee Haw thrown into the mix.

Written, says the Houston native, “to amuse myself,” the song “Merry Christmas from the Family” came from Keen’s desire to write a holiday song he could actually relate to. “I didn’t know what a chestnut was,” he says, “so I wrote about what I know about Christmas and what I thought might be the common experience for a lot of people.”

On its surface, “Family” is a song about a redneck clan getting together for the holidays. But it achieved popularity as a cult classic because of its universal message—that each one of us has a family that’s a little crazy but that we love anyway.

At last year’s Fam-O-Lee show at San Antonio’s Tobin Center for the Arts, the audience included longtime fans who have followed Keen since he emerged onto the Texas country music scene in the early 1980s and younger folks who found “Family” and appreciate the song’s sly wit and subversive-but-good-natured lyrics.

“After the song got out there, we would do shows in December, and people would come and wait for that song,” he recalls. “I threatened to just come out and talk for awhile and sing ‘Merry Christmas from the Family’ and that’d be the whole show.”

It was an empty threat, of course. Anyone who has seen Keen perform knows that he typically puts on an energetic performance lasting more than two hours. The Texas A&M graduate, longtime Kerrville resident, and devoted family man is proud that he has been playing with five of his bandmates for more than two decades and vows to “keep going until the wheels fall off.”

Regardless of what gets folks in the door, Keen is happy to bring his slightly twisted take on the holidays to 10 or so venues across Texas and the region every year. And he insists that he never gets tired of singing “Merry Christmas from the Family”—and the popular finale “Feliz Navidad”—along with audience members from Mission to Amarillo, and Tulsa to Houston.

“I’m not Orson Welles,” Keen says. “I’m not P.T. Barnum. I just want to have fun, and this show is fun.”

Dallas Bach Society

Handel’s Messiah

The Dallas Bach Society performs Handel’s Messiah twice: December 19th at the Meyerson Symphony Center and December 20th as a sing-along at the Church of the Incarnation. www.dallasbach.org.

If the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah doesn’t leave you feeling refreshed, renewed, and refortified to face the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season, well, you might just be beyond hope.

Choral groups around Texas perform Messiah annually. In about the time it would take to watch a movie, you can take in a performance of one of the most stirring pieces of music ever composed. Written in 1741, Messiah is reverent and traditional, a balm for those who prefer their Christmas to be more “Silent Night,” less “Santa Baby.”

For the past 34 years, the Dallas Bach Society has performed chamber and Baroque music at public and private concerts in the Dallas area. Its annual Messiah performances—including a formal show and a sing-along concert—are held the week before Christmas and feature the conductor on harpsichord.

Hillary Coyle, executive director of the Dallas Bach Society, says that even those who have never been to a chamber music or Baroque concert will enjoy Messiah. The group uses 17th- and 18th-Century period instruments and vocal styles.

“If people are unfamiliar with classical concerts, this is a good one to dive into,” Coyle says. “There really is a transcendent thing that happens at these concerts. People say, ‘I was transported to another time.’”

BruceKelly17Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

Holiday Shindig

Bruce and Kelly’s Holiday Shindig Texas tour stops are December 2nd in Plano, 3rd in Tyler, 8th and 9th in Houston, 10th in Dallas, 16th in New Braunfels, and 17th in Austin. www.bruceandkellyshow.com.

The “First Couple” of Texas country music puts on a holiday concert that is a lot like them—musically endearing, completely unpretentious, and a little irreverent.

Bruce Robison, a Bandera native, and Kelly Willis, originally from Oklahoma, met in 1992, married four years later, and now live in Austin with their four children. Their chemistry and genuine likeability—as individuals as well as a duo—enhance their Shindig, which they’ve been putting on for 17 years. It pre-dates the 2003 release of their Happy Holidays album, which remains a fan favorite for its take on original and classic Christmas tunes.

These Happy Holidays songs form the core of the Shindig every year. From Buck Owens’ rollicking “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” to “Please Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk,” the pair’s set list includes songs that might be familiar but haven’t been played to death on the radio or department-store Muzak streams.

Bruce and Kelly put their own spin on classics like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Blue Christmas,” and Robison’s comically profane “Oklahoma Christmas” brings the house down. The show also includes some non-seasonal hits and occasional guest performers, including favorites like Joe Ely and Rodney Crowell in years past.

After you bask in the holiday glow of the Shindig, Bruce and Kelly could well become part of your favorite holiday reunions, like the cousins you look forward to seeing every year or favorite neighbors you invite over for a white elephant gift exchange. 

TubaChristmas007TubaChristmas

For TubaChristmas details, including information on how to participate in a local performance, see www.tubachristmas.com or search the web for your town’s event.

What the tuba lacks in elegance, it more than makes up for in presence. The sonorous brass instrument’s robust, good-natured rumbles are on full display at the TubaChristmas shows held across the state in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

In several Texas cities—plus nearly 300 more across the United States and in Canada, Costa Rica, and Switzerland—tuba, sousaphone, baritone, and euphonium players gather for seasonal performances on courthouse steps, at craft markets, shopping malls, and anywhere else crowds mill about this time of year.

In Texas, you’ll find TubaChristmas performances in places like Austin on the south steps of the Texas Capitol, in Amarillo at Westgate Mall, in Bryan at the Carnegie History Center, in Denton at the University of North Texas Library Mall, in Killeen at the Killeen Mall, and in Lake Jackson at the Brazos Mall.

Austin’s TubaChristmas, one of the state’s largest, attracts about 200 horn players ranging from junior-high beginners to veteran pros, many of them decked out in seasonal garb. Downtown office workers, tuba aficionados, and families fan out from the Capitol steps, soaking in the December sun amid the lawn’s statues and memorials.

Will these versions of “Jingle Bells” and “Joy to the World” bring wistful tears to the eyes of its watchful audiences? Probably not. But they’re guaranteed to inspire some smiles. TubaChristmas players don’t take themselves too seriously, and they don’t expect their audiences to, either.

Michael Martin Murphey

Cowboy Christmas

Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Christmas tour stops in Texas are December 2nd in Austin, 3rd in Brenham, 5th in Corpus Christi, 17th in Kerrville, 18th in Victoria, and 19th in Fort Worth. www.michaelmartinmurphey.com.

Michael Martin Murphey’s singing rings with the sincerity and authenticity that many find lacking in pop country these days. Nowhere is that more apparent than during Murphey’s annual Cowboy Christmas tour, a series of seasonal shows throughout the Southwest that feature a mix of traditional Christmas songs, a few Murphey favorites such as “What’s Forever For” and “Wildfire,” and cowboy poetry and storytelling. Murphey’s Christmas shows are unapologetically old-fashioned, much like the 71-year-old singer-songwriter himself, and have an intimate, reverent, and wholesome quality.      

Murphey, a working cowboy who divides his time between ranches in Amarillo and Colorado, embraces and celebrates what he calls the cowboy way of life—a life based on faith, family, hard work, and a passion for conservation and the environment. He says that this philosophy has a strong impact on his holiday show, as does his own family background.

“The material speaks of the music of the beginning of the cowboy trail-driver period in the 1870s to the music of modern-day ranching and rodeo,” Murphey says of Cowboy Christmas. “The new material and approach this year will focus on my Texas-Irish heritage. The influence of the Irish culture is huge in cowboy music and cowboy poetry.”

Murphey started his Cowboy Christmas tour after participating in Anson’s historic Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball in 1992. He recalls being surprised by the ball’s rigid rules for guests and performers—no alcohol or smoking, no skirts above the knee or hats allowed on the dance floor, and all dancing should be counter-clockwise. But he was charmed as well—and inspired to develop his own show.

The Anson ball, which was first held in 1885, remains the centerpiece of the tour each year and features a ranch supper and traditional Western songs and dances. Many attendees to the event wear period dress, as do Murphey and his Rio Grande Band.

Murphey says he attributes the popularity of Cowboy Christmas to the same influences that have enabled him to release 33 albums since 1972: God, discipline, ethics, and his commitment to understanding his audience.

“My music speaks to people because I try to put myself in the place of the listener,” he says. “I write my best songs from the heart, by inspiration. I let people fill in the blanks that I provide through imagery and storytelling.”
           

The Houston Bronze Ensemble

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Houston Bronze Ensemble’s holiday concerts are at 7 p.m. Dec. 2nd at the Tomball United Methodist Church and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3rd at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH).

Handbell concerts captivate audiences with their singular sound and the visual spectacle of the musicians’ precision movements. At holiday performances by the Houston Bronze Ensemble, under the direction of Bill Nave, watch and listen as 17 handbell musicians showcase the distinctive instrument in Christmas classics.

“The sound, motion, and sparkle of the bells is mesmerizing for everyone,” says Lorna Noack, the ensemble’s president. “Since we play a wide variety of musical genres, there is likely to be a piece recognizable by old and young alike at each concert.”

Houston Bronze is one of only a few groups in the country to play on seven octaves of bells. Each ringer is responsible for his or her assigned notes in the song. Noack likens the arrangement to 17 people playing the same piece of music on one piano, with each one responsible for only two notes. If one person is missing, so are his or her notes.

After each concert, the audience is invited to play the bells to get a better idea of what they feel like. Noack says that most people are amazed at the precision needed to master the more complicated pieces of music.

“We often hear comments like, ‘I had no idea you could do that with bells!’ and ‘That’s not like anything I’ve ever heard on bells before!’” says Noack.

Noack says the Houston Bronze Ensemble’s goal is to give audiences an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

“Come knowing that you will begin your Christmas season hearing your favorite holiday music in a new way,” she says. “It is our hope to fill our listeners with joy, as well as to offer a few moments to relax and enjoy the awe of beautiful music.”

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