December 12, 2018
It’s easy to overdose on Christmas and other holiday tunes: Every year, it seems, grocery and department stores, selected radio stations and a few other places start playing the stuff non-stop, almost before the Thanksgiving dishes have been cleaned up.
But there’s a ready antidote to that: the Sweetback Sisters’ annual Country Christmas Sing-Along Spectacular.
For years now, the Sweetback Sisters — lead singers Emily Miller and Zara Bode are not actually related, though their close-knit harmonies make them sound like family — have been putting their distinctive country swing and honky-tonk touch on a host of Christmas songs, in shows built around audience participation.
On Dec. 22, Miller, Bode and their band will bring the popular show (two concerts, actually) to Northampton’s Academy of Music. It’s a homecoming of sorts — Bode and original guitarist Ross Bellenoit are graduates of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley, and the band has long been on Northampton’s Signature Sounds label — and the gig also marks the 10th anniversary of the group’s first Christmas shows.
“Absolutely not!” said Miller when asked if the band ever expected still to be doing these shows when they first began. “We started in 2009 with just two small shows, in Guilford, Vermont and in Brooklyn, and it was a lot of work, a lot of new material to learn, for just two shows.
“But it turned out to be such a joy to be sharing the songs with others, to be singing together,” Miller added during a phone call earlier this week. “We decided to do it again the next year … but the whole thing grew in a way we hadn’t expected. The anniversary kind of snuck up on us.”
The concerts became an increasing draw after 2012, when the band released an album of Christmas songs (a new vinyl edition has just come out this year) with 15 cuts, from the traditional (“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”) to older pop (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to the less well known, like “Christmas Boogie,” made popular by the country duo The Davis Sisters in the 1950s.
On that album and in its shows, the band also has brought a unique interpretation to many of these songs, like their alternately slow and rocking approach to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and the twangy instrumental rave-up version of “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas.”
Another concert favorite is “Christmas Island,” a song first recorded by The Andrews Sisters in the 1940s, on which drummer Stefan Amidon’s drawling vocals cover the joys of, among other things, hanging a stocking “on a great big coconut tree.”
“We always try to do a mix of songs that people know, or that are easy enough to learn and sing along with, as well as some less-known songs,” said Miller. “There are certain ones we do every year, and we also do a new opener each year.”
Miller notes that over the years, the Christmas shows — staged primarily in New England and the Northeast — have moved to bigger and bigger venues; the band’s first gig in Northampton, for instance, was at the Iron Horse and only later moved to the Academy.
“We have lost a few venues over the years, places we loved to play but which just became too small for the audiences,” she said. This weekend, as another example, the band plays the Oberon Theater in Cambridge after previously playing historic Club Passim.
But The Sweetbacks have kept the focus on audience participation and shows with an intimate, family-friendly vibe, with special features like trivia questions, prizes and lyric sheets for audience members.
And Miller and Bode, who both have very young children, have also taken two of the new additions on tour with the group (Bode is married to Amidon, the drummer, and Miller is married to former Sweetback fiddler, guitarist and songwriter Jesse Milnes).
After 10 years of these performances, Miller says the group has also accumulated a significant new cache of Christmas songs — about 20 at least, she says, easily enough to make another album. She ticks off a few of those tunes: “Feliz Navidad,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Blue Christmas” and “Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me),” the last two recorded by Elvis Presley.
Those songs have come from a variety of places over the years — audience requests, members’ suggestions, a bit of jamming — and the band typically works on new arrangements at rehearsals before beginning a new tour.
“We’re absolutely considering another [Christmas] album somewhere down the road,” Miller noted. But having just released a new Sweetback Sisters album last year, “The King of Killing Time,” the band wants to find a time and place where members can again “concentrate our energy and creativity and share ideas the way we like to.”
For the Northampton concerts, there will be a few lineup changes. In addition to Bode, Amidon and Miller, the Sweetbacks’ first guitarist, Ross Bellenoit, will be on stage, as well as Darby Wolf on keyboards, Rob Hecht on fiddle and saxophone and Charlie Muench on bass.
Miller said it’s been a special treat to have Bellenoit on the tour because he produced the 2012 Christmas album, played on “The King of Killing Time” as well and “is simply a dear, dear friend … it’s another reason these shows feel like family to us.”