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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