For New Haven singer/songwriter Jonny Rodgers and friends, a recent sold-out performance at Westville’s Lyric Hall could not have gone better. Their holiday show, dubbed “A Lyric Hall Christmas II,” referred to the second consecutive year of a developing musical tradition that began as a concert for close friends and fans last year.
This year’s well-crafted program brought together elements of pop culture, traditional Christmas songs of reverence, original music and even moments of playful irreverence on Thursday, Dec. 8. “When putting the show together, it was our hope that the party portion—between sets and afterward—would be as much a part of the overall experience as the music itself” said Rodgers.
The amalgam of indie folk-rock musicians included Mon Monarch, a band which features Chuck E. Costa. (Click the play arrow to hear the band.) Costa recently began a two-year stint as honorary Connecticut State Troubadour and serves as “an ambassador of music and song that promotes cultural literacy among Connecticut citizens.” The biannual appointment, created in 1991, is made by the State Commission on Culture and Tourism. Other Mon Monarch members include guitarist Eric Dawson Tate, and the versatile Colin Meyer, who plays guitar, but also plays bass and drums (simultaneously). Also headlining the evening’s program was Connecticut area singer-songwriter Abigail Zsiga who, along with her solid musical bona fides, is known to some for her human rights advocacy as spokesperson for Love146, an organization devoted to combating child sex slavery and exploitation around the world.
Additional Program headliners included “The Soldier Story” and “The Sea The Sea” (featuring the mellifluous vocalizations of singer Mira Stanley). These groups played in various combinations throughout the program, melding their instrumental styles and vocal harmonies in a lush musical alchemy that raised spirits and trumpeted the narrative of the holiday season.
The show was punctuated with comedy sketches and visitations by icons of holiday lore; the grumpy and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, Alvin the chipmunk, and the lovable sad-sack Charlie Brown, played by area performance artist Chris Jacobs. Actor Slate Ballard played an animated chipmunk and Charlie Brown sidekick Linus Van Pelt, but also got to wear the red suit of the perennial scene-stealing headliner, Santa Claus himself.
Rodger’s performance history spans two decades, spawning a legion of loyal fans of Mighty Purple, his highly-charged jam band that includes brother Steve Rodgers, proprietor of Hamden’s The Space and its spinoff venue Outer Space. For the Dec. 8 show however, he performed with his signature wine harp, an amplified table of water-filled wine glasses, accompanied by electronic loops and samples, along with his notable guitar fretwork. The texture of the combined instrumentation was brought to another level as Rodgers summoned an ethereal “head-voice,” akin to a classical Passaggio pitch range that he handles comfortably.
“We were super excited with how good the overall vibe felt,” said Rodgers, who reflected on the program’s outcome and the nature of the Lyric Hall venue: “We’ve talked about doing things at Lyric Hall at other times of the year, and may do so at some point, but nothing beats a combo of Christmas at this particular theater. It’s just big enough to feel majestic; just small enough to feel like you’re doing a show for your family and friends in the living room.”
Lyric Hall, which was as an entertainment venue a century ago, has been running at full-tilt with a December calendar that has been its busiest month since the hall’s rebirth as an entertainment destination just over two years ago. No less than three separate cabaret acts will have performed before month’s end, including the upcoming “Holiday Cabaret” with local cabaret singer Maggie Barkin and friends on Dec. 18. Year-end celebrations have included an assortment of holiday parties including the hall’s own annual holiday celebration that draws some of Westville’s community organizations, activists, volunteers and neighbors. Festivities will culminate on the 31st with the appearance of two New Haven bands, Mission O and the Crissy Gardner Band, with a complimentary champagne toast at midnight.
Connecticut Main Street’s 2011 Property Owner of the Year award recipient, John Cavaliere, who owns Lyric Hall and runs a restoration and conservation business there, embraces his stewardship of the historic building and noted continuing upgrades such as the code-compliant handicap-access bathrooms now under construction. “Nine of our every 10 dollars earned by the two businesses here are poured back into the building” he said. His commitment to the building, its legacy and the community that surrounds it, is not lost on those who perform there. Cabaret singer Anne Tofflemire, who had her own holiday show there on Dec. 10, said John Cavaliere has “upgraded the level of experience for those that live in Westville.”
One of the goals of the Lyric Hall Christmas II show, for Jonny Rodgers and friends, was to recapture the sense of intimacy and shared experience that typified another era, experiences that reside in our collective memory but still remain accessible. “Christmas can be commercialized and commodified, and of course people bring this up every year. But at its best, there really is a spirit of warmth, family and togetherness during the holidays that can unite a group of people, even if they’re all strangers in a room” opined Rodgers.
That is especially true if that room happens to be the rediscovered and restored gem that is today’s Lyric Hall.