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Why do scientists hate Santa?

Watkins & the Rapiers at The Little.

An appearance by Watkins & the Rapiers this time of year is always preceded by the Rochester band’s reputation: The audience is in for two hours of a Dr. Demento Christmas.

And once again, civil society is bracing itself for Watkins’ annual “The Big Little Christmas Show,” 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at The Little Theatre No. 1. With about 300 seats, it’s the largest of the artsy venue’s five theaters.

That’s a big step up from the band’s usual venue, the intimate Little Café. And last Monday’s show at the café was a reminder that, with Watkins & the Rapiers, the joke’s on us.

Appearances, as the old saying goes, can be deceiving. This time of year, the audience must look beyond the band’s couture of choice, garish sweaters, to find the true meaning of Rapier Christmas. Beyond Scott Regan’s sweater loudly proclaimed “Take Me Gnome Tonight,” with a cartoon image of a gnome holding a beer mug in each hand. It probably doesn’t take much to get one of those little fellas drunk. Gnomes, I mean.

And the audience at Wednesday’s show must look deeply into the short films, featuring the band members, that will be projected on the screen behind them. While I voiced the narration for one of the films (it is a letter supposedly written by a soldier in the American Civil War), I have yet to see what the band has created. But if the shorts of Watkins Christmases past holds true, these visuals will be a mix of humor and heartfelt Christmas sentiment.

Well, mostly humor. Watkins & the Rapiers is generally not a chorus of Hallmark cards. Its signature sound is sardonic, warped humor. Which is the season at its best. As Kerry Regan recalled during Monday’s show, Philadelphia Eagles fans during the 1968 NFL season, sick of their team’s losing ways, booed a halftime appearance by Santa Claus. And threw snowballs at him.

Tapping into that same malevolent keg is a Watkins fan favorite, and typical of the band’s mindset, “I’ll Be Drunk For Christmas.” On that one, the Regan boys, Scott and Kerry, and fellow guitarist Steve Piper, swap lyrics like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. Including a line about the mischievous disruption of a tiny decorative display depicting Santa and his deer-driven sleigh, with the figures rudely re-arranged as “reindeers having sex.”

Who hasn’t done that with Grandma’s favorite Christmas tchotchkes?

Watkins & the Rapiers sift through its Christmas catalog with electric and acoustic guitars, drums, chimes, electric bass, mandolin, trombone, clarinet, electric keyboard, accordion, and a smattering of Christmas lights. Six of the seven band members write the songs. Only drummer Marty York does not write. But York’s  day job is manufacturing dental implants. And as I have an example of his work in my smile, he gets a pass. Plus, during the Christmas season, York’s drumsticks are striped red and white, like candy canes.

Irreverence being in the band’s bones, there is a gentle prodding of religious themes, yet tempered with a respectful fear of God’s reputation for irritable retribution (hurricanes, earthquakes, famine and locusts). And yes, a Ukrainian flag did appear as a Christmas tree decoration in one of the songs introduced last year. But that’s a line that remains relevant today, as Kerry Regan sadly noted. Wars don’t go away with the flip of a calendar page.

It’s all balanced by the loopy musicality of Tom Whitmore’s “Season of Joy,” a tribute to post-party cleanup with Joy dishwashing soap.

Watkins & the Rapiers has written five new songs for this season. I asked Whitmore how many Christmas songs it now has in its arsenal. “One-hundred and seven,” he said, although a slight hesitation in his voice suggested a little uncertainty. Precision aside, the band has certainly written and rehearsed more than 100 Christmas songs, which it believes is a world record.

No band or artist has disputed that claim. What band or artist would not want to command such mastery of its craft? A singlemindedness that remains undistracted by … Easter songs?

Science does not escape the Watkins war on Christmas. In one of his songs, Rick McRae wonders, how much time does Santa spend at each good kid’s house? And McRae does the math. It’s impossible, he concludes, to travel the world on a sleigh, propelled by reindeer, stopping at every house, in a single night.

Yet in the chorus, McRae poses another, more significant, question. “Why do scientists hate Santa?” And therein lies the suspension of disbelief that carries the season. Such scientific calculations, McRae sings, “take the magic away.”

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Watkins says what we’re all thinking this holiday season

It was clear during last Monday night’s Watkins & the Rapiers show at The Little Theater Café that something was up. While keeping its infamously loose, intra-band banter intact, the group seemed a little musically tighter, a little more focused, than usual. In fact, the show was an undressed rehearsal for Wednesday night’s big, multi-media concert at The Little Theater.

It’s the second-annual Watkins & the Rapiers Christmas in December show, which last year just about sold out the 300 seats. Pretty good considering the band gives away the music for free during its December residencies at The Little.

Watkins & the Rapiers’ Christmas shows are the closest thing to a unique Holiday tradition to which Rochester can lay claim. The group says it has composed the most original Christmas songs of any band in the world, and no one has stepped forward to dispute that. More than 70 songs at this point, and most of them are pretty worthy. The band is generally drummer Marty York, guitarists/bassists Tom Whitmore and Kerry Regan, guitarists Scott Regan and Steve Piper and multi-instrumentalist Rick McRae, and for the holiday season it adds brass and reed player Pete Hasler. All except York write and sing, so after a couple of decades of taking out their holiday frustrations in song, it’s easy to see how the Christmas tunes have added up.

Typically, a Watkins & the Rapiers Christmas compostion is sardonic, sarcastic, satiric. They’re Dr. Demento worthy. Whitmore’s compositions can be downright grumpy: “Why Won’t Christmas Leave Me Alone?” Hasler’s contributions take a similar dim view of rituals such as untangling Christmas lights. One of the band’s biggest crowd pleasers in McRae’s rousing parody of a communist proletariat anthem, “Arise Ye North Pole Workers.” Kerry Regan’s clever wordplay can be provocative, and he holds the distinction of writing the only Watkins song that has been quietly retired. “Santa’s Got a Gun,” the first-ever Watkins Christmas song, in which the jolly icon takes a hostage, has been deemed inappropriate in this age of gun violence.

Yet some of the Watkins Christmas songs – ones by Scott Regan and Piper in particular – are heartfelt, and even sentimental. Offsets to the mayhem.

And behind the band, showing on the screen, multi-media offerings to enhance the lyrics, including a video shot by the band especially for this evening.

The doors open at 7 p.m., the show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and available at The Little, 240 East Ave., and at thelittle.org.

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The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything

Regan, Deming and Piper: The Spring Chickens. Photo by Sue Rogers.

With decisions come consequences.

That was the theme running through my head while lying awake in bed at 3 a.m. Wednesday. The gray-matter residue from a couple of Tuesday night’s entertainments.

It started at The Little theater with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A murder mystery that doesn’t give you what you’re looking for: A solution. Instead, the story of a woman who rents three billboards outside of town and uses them to ask why the rape and murder of her daughter hasn’t been solved offers brilliant acting by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Their characters are complex, their motivations not always honorable, the story they are caught up in is multi-layered. The rape and murder is the tragedy that sets off a series of decisions made by these characters, decisions that lead to a Rubix’s Cube of unexpected consequences.

We drifted from the theater into The Little Café, where The Spring Chickens were playing. An acoustic trio of Connie Deming, Steve Piper and Scott Regan, whose show Open Tunings airs every weekday morning on WRUR-FM (88.5). Regan and Piper also play in Watkins & the Rapiers, currently holding down a Monday-night residency at The Little. That band is notable for its frequently irreverent and sardonic songwriting. But with The Spring Chickens, Piper and Regan present their music with a slightly more serious tone, even if the between-song banter between the three remains charming and funny.

But something’s weighing on The Spring Chickens, and heavily. Piper – a wry, amusing fellow – spoke of the mood of anger and depression that has settled over the country, particularly in these last few days, as the news grows increasingly alarming. Deming sang a song she wrote this summer, “How Did We Get Here?” It’s a dark one, about deception in a relationship, but one verse makes reference to “the liar in the White House.”

And Regan, too. He generally limits his social and political observations to an insightful line or two, then moves on. But Tuesday night, you could see that his dismay in what we’re witnessing, what we’re living through right now, is something he can no longer contain. He struggled to find the right words, then found them: How sad it is, “Watching our country get taken apart.” By the hands of Trump, whose malignant narcissism and obsession with enriching himself are leading to decisions with damning consequences for us all.

And then Regan played his song, “The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything.”

The Spring Chickens. Speaking truth to power.

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