Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Sharing Season Begins: Living Trio

We've done a couple 'pre-season' shares, albums with one Christmas song included in the track list.  Now it's time for the sharing season to begin in earnest, and we'll start off with "I'll Be Home For Christmas" by the Living Trio with Chimes and Bells.

All of the albums with the "Living" label - Living Strings, Living Voices, Living Guitars - are quite good, and the Living Trio is no exception.  I haven't done the research to learn if the 'Living' albums are all connected in some way, like the same label, production company, etc.  I imagine there is a connection, as the 'Living' logos are very similar.  Perhaps a Merry & Bright reader who knows more about the the story will share a comment.

Back to the Living Trio album.  It perfectly captures that late 60's pop Christmas sound with 10 tracks, all medleys of two to five songs.  Most of the songs are familiar standards, although there are a couple gems that may be new to you - "One Bright Star" (Medley 4) and "Carol, Sweetly Carol" (Medley 9).  The album is a 1967 production from RCA Camden, and this is the stereo version (apparently there is also a mono release).

In the download file the tracks are named "Medley 1", "Medley 2", etc, so please refer to the album art for the songs comprising each medley.  This is a highly enjoyable album, and if you're of an age (as I am) where you recall this particular style of Christmas music as part of your childhood, I think you'll enjoy the Living Trio.

download link


Friday, November 25, 2022

Artist Interview: Laurie Berkner

Laurie Berkner makes happy music.  Really happy, spirited, high-energy, playful, joyful music.  Laurie and her band, The Laurie Berkner Band, have been making music for kids for many years.  If you google "best children's music" or "best kids music artists" or anything similar, Laurie Berkner will undoubtedly be at or near the top of the search results.  Although she is described as a children's music artist, what sets Laurie apart from so many other musicians focusing on kids music is that her music appeals to all listeners, regardless of age.  It's good music, pure and simple. 


Laurie has released a new album of Christmas music, titled "Another Laurie Berkner Christmas", following by 10 years her first album of seasonal songs.  Laurie and her amazing band - Susie Lampert, Brady Rymer, and Bobby Golden - will make your holidays even more special with 18 songs full of cheer, goodness, and smiles.

Laurie brought in some special guests for "Another Laurie Berkner Christmas".  Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche join her on "Here We Come A-Wassailing", and Norm Lewis lends a magnificent voice to "Good King Wenceslas".  

Laurie was kind enough to answer a few questions for Merry & Bright about her new album, making great music, and some of her favorite Christmas traditions.

Please be sure to visit Laurie on all of her internet and social media sites!  Links follow the interview.

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Merry & Bright: Welcome Laurie, and thank you for visiting with us at Merry & Bright!

Laurie Berkner: Thanks for having me!

MB: Your new album “Another Laurie Berkner Christmas” follows your terrific 2012 release “A Laurie Berkner Christmas”. What inspired you to make another Christmas album? 

LB: I thought 10 years was a good amount of time between albums - and it felt like I had the energy and inspiration to record new Christmas songs that would make me as happy as the first ones did!

MB: You chose 13 classic Christmas songs to go alongside your five originals. How did you choose which of the standards to arrange and record?

LB: Having already recorded 12 standards on my first album, I had to start by finding songs that were as meaningful to me as those had been. I tried to choose songs that were both part of my childhood memories and that I thought would appeal to kids and families now. Mostly I wanted to record songs that brought up a lot of feelings when I was young.

MB: Laurie, you and your band make great music. Not just great children’s music, but music that is enjoyed by everyone, no matter how young or old. What’s your secret to making music that is focused on young listeners but is also a treat for moms and dads and grandmas and grandpas?

LB: Thank you! I love hearing that. I think a lot about how to create music for kids first, but without leaving out the adult listeners. Especially because I often have to sing those songs over and over again once I've written them! I don't know what the secret is, exactly, but I do know that I try to make music that I like. I also include interaction, lots of images, and playfulness for the kids, while keeping the music and rhythm interesting on an adult level.

MB: You have some amazing guest artists on “Here We Come A-Wassailing” – Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche. I’m a huge fan of The Roche’s Christmas album “We Three Kings”, and so I was very excited when I saw that Suzzy Roche and daughter Lucy would be contributing to your album. Can you tell us how this collaboration came about?

LB: Oh my goodness, I was so excited, too! I have been a huge Roches fan since I was in my 20s and I was thrilled that they agreed to sing on the album with me. The idea came about when I started to consider recording the Hallelujah Chorus for this album. We played with the idea of my doing it entirely a cappella and I remembered having seen the Roches perform it that way in concert back in the ‘90s. I mentioned this to my sound engineer, Dave Darlington, and it turned out that he is good friends with Suzzy's husband! I knew that the Roches were no longer together and that Suzzy was touring with her very talented daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and asked him to reach out and see if they would both be willing to sing a song with me on Another Laurie Berkner Christmas. I chose “Here We Come A-Wassailing” because I thought it would be an ideal song to showcase their beautiful voices.

photo by Jayme Thornton

MB: And speaking of guest singers – Norm Lewis. Man! What a performance on “Good King Wenceslas” – such a regal voice! Can you share the story of bringing Norm on board and the recording of “Good King Wenceslas”?

LB: Another lucky connection! I knew of Norm and what an amazing singer he is, and he also happened to be a good friend of someone who works for me. She thought of him when I mentioned I was looking for someone to sing the part of the "King" in "Good King Wenceslas." I reached out to his agent and was thrilled when he said yes!

MB: We all love the old chestnuts, the Christmas songs that we’ve grown up with. But your originals are fantastic, and really represent the soul of the record. I absolutely love “I Live Inside a Snowglobe (Shake It Up)”, and can imagine a room full of kids shaking it up, stomping, jumping, and roaring! (Actually, I can imagine my college daughter and her roommates doing the same thing). Can you tell us about creating this song?

LB: Hahaha, that's so fun to imagine!! And thank you, I am really happy with the originals on this album, so it's great to hear that they shine through all of the traditional songs. Someone who works for me (Michelle) suggested that I write a song about living inside a snowglobe and I thought it was a great idea. The first thing that came to mind was that if I did, I would want to shake it from the inside and that the movement of shaking would be fun for kids who heard the song. I went with that image and the rest of the song followed.

MB: Another original is “Time To Eat”. It is seriously fun, and really involves the kids in the song. Like “Snowglobe”, I can imagine kids in a classroom really engaging and shouting out their favorite holiday dinner foods. What is the story of “Time To Eat”?

LB: That's exactly what I imagined as well! I wanted to write a song about people gathering in a home to celebrate and eat a meal together, and actually hoped it could be used at any time of year. I also wanted it to be easy for kids and families to change the song to be about whatever foods THEY enjoy and cook for their gatherings. Then I actually did that myself for recording! I originally wrote “Time To Eat” for my 2021 album, Let's Go!, and decided to change some of the food to make it feel more like a more winter holiday song for Another Laurie Berkner Christmas. I also wanted the song to be catchy and easy to remember enough that it could be sung easily while families are cooking or preparing for everyone to arrive.

MB: Every song on this album makes me happy and brings a smile to my face. When you and your band are performing live for an audience of kiddos, what is the energy like? What’s the concert experience like for you and your band?

LB: Oh wow, that really makes me feel good, thank you. The energy when we perform is so exuberant and joyous. It's really one of my favorite things to do and I feel so lucky to be able to do it! I create the set list for every show to support an ongoing interactive experience with the audience. We're always inviting them to take part in the song in some way whether it's singing, clapping, hand motions, or using their whole bodies through movements like jumping or dancing. I do the song "Pig On Her Head" at pretty much every show I perform, and the kids bring stuffed animals to wear on their heads that I sing about. It's playful, it's loving, it's musical, it's active, and hopefully, it's also moving. I know the band and I certainly feel that way about every show - and we hope the audience does too.

MB: Laurie, what is one of your favorite Christmas family traditions?

LB: Haha, singing Christmas carols!

And baking cookies.

And picking out the tree.

And just being together with my family on Christmas morning.

Wait - did you ask for just one?

MB: Laurie, thank you again for answering a few questions for Merry & Bright. I wish you all the best! Merry Christmas to you, your band, and your family!

LB: Thank you so much, Merry Christmas to you!

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Here's one of Laurie's original songs from "Another Laurie Berkner Christmas" - "I Live Inside a Snowglobe"


Laurie Berkner website

"Another Laurie Berkner Christmas" on Amazon

Laurie Berkner on Facebook.

Laurie Berkner on Instagram.

Laurie Berkner on Pinterest.

Laurie Berkner on YouTube.


Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Pre-Season Share: Jo Ann Castle

How about another 'pre-season' share, here the day before Thanksgiving?  Actually, this is one of the records I'm most excited about, partly because the Christmas song was totally unexpected, and partly because the album is so great.

"Ragtime Melodies" by Jo Ann Castle was a find at a Savers thrift store last year.  There were three albums by Ms. Castle for a buck each, and I was intrigued, so I bought them and then stored them away for a few months.  Earlier this year I put one on the record player, and as it was playing I heard a familiar tune, familiar in the 'Christmas melody' sense.  Indeed, Jo Ann Castle's song "Skater's Boogie" is a ragtime piano performance of the classic seasonal song "Skater's Waltz".

And what a performance!  Talk about your upbeat songs - holy ghost of Scott Joplin!  "Skater's Boogie" is driven by a left-hand rhythm that is at super speed, with the syncopated melody blasting from the right hand.  Wow!

Because of the Christmas connection, I'm sharing this out for you all.  The whole album is great, featuring songs such as "Frog Legs Rag", "Bring Back the Old Hurdy Gurdy", and "Maple Leaf Rag".  

Jo Ann Castle's main claim to fame is that she was a featured pianist on the Lawrence Welk Show for several years in the 1960s.  Here is a video of her performing "You Are My Sunshine" on Welk's program.  This is amazing - she spends 90% of the time smiling for the camera or glancing toward the band, with just a few peeks at the piano.  Man!


There are several other videos of Jo Ann Castle showing her ragtime skills on Youtube.  I find them fascinating - what talent!

So - please enjoy Jo Ann Castle!

Jo Ann Castle Ragtime Melodies download link

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Pre-Season Share: Leroy Anderson and Boston Pops

It's a couple days before Thanksgiving and the usual start of sharing season, so I'm going to do a 'pre-season' share to ease into things this year.  The featured record is "Fiddle-Faddle - Blue Tango - Sleigh Ride - 10 Other Leroy Anderson Favorites" by the Boston Pops, conducted by Arthur Fiedler.  (OK - someone clearly did not oversee the album titling process).

There is a Christmas connection - the Leroy Anderson classic "Sleigh Ride" is performed by the Boston Pops and included on the album.  Seriously, is it even legal to have a Leroy Anderson album without "Sleigh Ride"?

The selection of songs is quote good.  If, like me, you're less familiar with Mr. Anderson's non-Christmas compositions, you'll find a lot new here, and all very enjoyable, with some you'll recognize, like "The Syncopated Clock".  The title tune "Fiddle-Faddle", "Jazz Pizzicato", "The Waltzing Cat", and the inimitable "Chicken Reel" are excellent examples of the work of one of America's most famous composers.

There is a nice little anecdote related to this record.  Several months ago I received a surprise package in the mail from a good friend of mine, Bob C.  In the mystery package was a Duke Ellington vinyl box set, and a letter signed by Leroy Anderson, together with sheet music for "Blue Tango".  Bob was downsizing some of his old collectibles and thought that the Leroy Anderson autograph would find a better home at my place.  Much appreciated Bob!



Just a couple of weeks later, I was helping to clean my mother-in-law's basement, and I found this record.  Seemed like the perfect partner to the letter and sheet music, so I acquired the record (without objection from the in-laws).  And so here we are, a great record, a nice collectible, and some music to share with all of you.  Enjoy!

Fiddle-Faddle download link

Monday, November 21, 2022

Christmas Reading: The Man at the Gate of the World

Tonight's post is a recommendation for Christmas reading, "The Man at the Gate of the World" by W.E. Cule.  Each year I do a lot of Christmas-themed reading - novels, stories, poetry, non-fiction, children's books - from many eras, back to the 1800's.  Last year I read "The Man at the Gate of the World", included in The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories, a superb collection published in 1945.  

The story, first published in 1929, begins with the story of the Magi's journey to  Bethlehem at the birth of Christ.  Following their visit to King Herod, the Magi find the infant Jesus, but they do know know that they have found him.  They are looking for a child well known as a King, with much rejoicing and celebration, and instead they find a child in poverty, born in a stable. They leave Bethlehem, believing they had been misled.

Caspar, the youngest of the Magi, refuses to believe that the Star they followed would lead them astray.  Ten years later, still believing in his fate to meet Jesus, Caspar returns to Bethlehem. He is met at the gates of the city by a child, who brings Caspar back to their dwelling, where the child and his mother wash his feet and give him food and drink, although they have barely enough for themselves.  Of course, the boy is Jesus and the woman his mother Mary.  Caspar does not know this, and again leaves the city.

Caspar dedicates his life to serving those in need, and searching for Jesus.  Caspar eventually goes to Damascus, where he waits at the gates of the city, welcoming travelers as he was welcomed in Bethlehem.  Caspar spends his wealth until he is destitute, yet still serves all in need, while believing that the savior will appear to him.

The rest of the story is as spiritually moving and heartening as anything I've ever read.  I've left much of the tale untold here, leaving it to all of you readers whose interest is now piqued to find the story and enjoy the unfolding of Caspar's journey on your own.  The Fireside Book of Christmas Stories is readily available on eBay and Amazon, and is filled with seasonal excellence (including outstanding stories by Christopher Marlowe and Daphne du Maurier).  

In searching for info about the story I found that it was adapted into a radio broadcast on the serial "Mr. President".  The program is an adaptation of the story into a radio drama, and it's very good.  As a special bonus for my readers, here is a download link to the program:  Mr. President: The Man at the Gate of the World.

I read The Man at the Gate of the World again this past Summer, just o experience it again, and to ensure that I had fully comprehended the story and message.  It's worth a read, or two, or three.  

Thursday, November 17, 2022

New Music: "Winter's Wish" by Carol Crittenden

There are days when being a Christmas music blogger is really, really worth it.  The day I received an e-mail about a new song, "Winter's Wish", from Carol Crittenden, was one of those days.  The season is still young, but I know that "Winter's Wish" is one of the best songs of the year.  

Carol Crittenden is an east coast (New York/New Jersey area) singer-songwriter-guitarist with well over a decade of music performance under her belt. Carol was the lead singer for Four Celtic Voices, appeared in touring stage productions of Dracula and Hamlet, as well as other stage productions in the NYC and LA theatre markets.  As a solo recording artist, Carol has released an album, En Route, and a pair of singles, "RISE" and "I Won't Break".  

"Winter's Wish", set to officially release on Nov 18, 2022, is absolutely beautiful.  It's about the magic of the Christmas holiday season from a child's point of view, and how our experiences with the season change as we grow older.  We reminisce, we remember the joy of Winter and Christmas, and we long to have just a touch of that childhood wonderment back.  And, for so many, we can and do recapture some of those feelings when each new Winter season comes.

The years keep on passing, the drummer boy drums
But we all become children when this time of year comes
...
It’s a simple winter’s wish,
May it always be like this
It’s a simple winter’s wish,
Somewhere it’s always just like this

 

One cannot write a Christmas song without Christmas imagery, but so many new songs are trope-heavy, pushing every Christmas phrase and symbol (either spiritual or secular, take your pick) possible into the lyrics.  With "Winter's Wish", Carol has evoked all the goodness of the season with just a few sublime lyrical portraits, my favorite being:

Grandma’s spritz cookies are the best that he knows
Is it butter or magic she puts in the dough

<sigh>  I completely love this song.  

Carol Crittenden on Bandcamp

Carol Crittenden website

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Maiah Wynne - "Feels Like Christmas"

Maiah Wynne is truly a rising star in today's music universe.  Hailing from the northwest (currently residing in the Portland, OR area), Maiah has a hauntingly beautiful voice, is a multi-instrumentalist (often concurrently - more on that later), and is an accomplished songwriter, winning the International Music from the Moon songwriting contest with the amazing "Show the World", the Claim to Fame International Song Contest, and the Burl Audio Covid19 Songwriting Contest.  Oh, and Maiah has been featured on NPR's All Songs Considered.  

Photo by Aliephant

In the early 2020s, Maiah caught the attention of Andy Curran with her original compositions.  Andy called Maiah and told her he'd sent her songs to his friend Alex, who really liked them.  Maiah thought "ok, cool".  Then she realized that Andy's 'friend Alex' was Alex Lifeson, guitarist for Rush and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.  Fast forward to 2022, where Maiah, Alex, Andy, and Alfio Annabalini formed the band "Envy of None" and released their debut self-titled album.

Envy of None

All this, and Maiah is a mere 25 years old.  Wow.

So, what's this got to do with Christmas music?  Well, Maiah has a 3-song EP available on Bandcamp, titled "Christmas with Friends".  On it, Maiah performs her original "Feels Like Christmas" and covers "Emmanuel" and "Winter Wonderland".  "Feels Like Christmas" is a wonderful song, composed during a long drive across the upper midwest in the wintertime, reminiscing while anticipating the nearing Christmas season.

And, the story gets better...

In early October of this year, Maiah, her six stringed instruments, her bass and snare (which she plays with her feet), her percussionist/sound man Troy and her manager/driver/merch dealer/etc Heidi made a stop at my house and played a show in my living room for an intimate gathering of my family and friends.  Her show was astounding.  Maiah played many of her own extraordinary compositions, as well as amazing covers - Radiohead's "Creep" (which was eerie and ethereal), a Metallica song on the banjo, a Norah Jones song, and songs from The Hunger Games.  

And, of course, by request (by me), Maiah played "Feels Like Christmas", live, in my living room.  My good friend Devin recorded this song, and it's embedded below for your viewing and listening pleasure.


Maiah has an Alex Lifeson signature Les Paul model guitar that she played during the concert, that Alex had personally given to her while they were recording Envy of None's album.  After the show, I actually got to hold the Alex Lifeson guitar!  What a thrill!

Please check out Maiah Wynne on her website, and her music is on Bandcamp.  And keep your eyes and ears open for more from this truly incredible musician.

Maiah Wynne website

Maiah Wynne Bandcamp

Maiah Wynne on Facebook

Envy of None website