Rhan Wilson

Santa Cruz Sentinel

Santa Cruz musician Rhan Wilson has talent, experience and creativity to spare. But what elevates him to the mantle of a special artist is a genuine artistic vision. That vision began more than a decade ago when Rhan conceived of "An Altared Christmas," in which he reworked well-known Christmas songs, playing them in a minor key. That minor alteration inspired Rhan to create an entirely new aesthetic tradition done up in blue and black instead of red and green. Every December, Rhan and his merry band of collaborators bring alive that aesthetic on stage in a concert that, he says, is not meant to parody or replace traditional holiday celebrations, but, in fact, to enhance them and give them new meaning, particularly to people whom a commercially oriented Christmas has failed to inspire. Rhan has expanded his "Altared" brand to include Valentine's Day and "4/20," but ultimately his goal is to revive and unleash the lost magic of Christmas.

 

Santa Cruz Sentinel

There is a conversation we're not having in this culture about Christmas.

It is a conversation that centers on a paradox -- How can so many people both love Christmas and dread it at the same time?

It is a conversation that has little to do with the so-called "war on Christmas" that becomes a tiresome trope of the culture wars every December. It really has little to do at all with religion, though it is deeply entwined with the ideals we often express in religious terms.

The conversation we're not having revolves around one provocative question: Has the apparatus that contemporary consumer culture has built around Christmas strangling the more noble meanings of the holiday?

For the past seven years, Santa Cruz musician Rhan Wilson has taken it upon himself to reinvigorate the idea of Christmas with his show "An Altared Christmas." It's a delightfully eccentric show where red and green and replaced with blue and black and old familiar Christmas songs are reworked into a minor key.

There are those who think Wilson is just kidding around, that he's mocking Christmas tradition. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

"There are some misconceptions about this show," he said of "Altared Christmas," which takes place Saturday at the Rio. "A lot of people think it's irreverent. And I'm always baffled by that. They think we're making fun of Christmas, which is not true at all. What the show is commenting on is about what we've done to Christmas."

Christmas has not only become commercialized, it's become overly ritualized as well. Too many people drag out their tinsel and ornaments, and slap on that Nat King Cole Christmas album without much thought about it. There's a certain amount of comfort in the ritual itself, sure. But the great irony of the most holy of holidays on the Christian calendar is not necessarily that it's a spiritual observation celebrated with an orgy of materialism. The greater irony might be that it's a time meant for reflection that turns into robotic ritual. As Wilson puts it, "Nothing really stands out anymore."

What Wilson is setting out to do with "An Altared Christmas" is to take the familiar and make it just unfamiliar enough to give it a fresh feel. Wilson and his disciples do not change the lyrical content of the Christmas songs they perform. They change the setting of them and that makes all the difference.

Wilson's latest example of freshening up the familiar is a new rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Wilson arranged the song in a minor key and Santa Cruz blues/gospel singer Tammi Brown recorded that arrangement with a string quartet. Almost everyone who has heard it, said Wilson, "has flipped over it."

The performers are a broad cross section of Santa Cruz's finest musical talent, including Ukulele Dick, Patti Maxine, Dale Ockerman, Rick Zeek, Pipa Pinon, Celia Gutierrez ... well, it would easier to name who's not in the show. Condoleeza Rice isn't in the show. Penn & Teller are not, either. And that about covers it.

"Altared" is really about examining songs that we too often sing without being conscious of what they say. Most famously, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" has become a kind of melodrama of delusional thinking in which the young girl who witnesses the title act grows up to be a deranged "Baby Jane" type.

"It's such a fascinating story to me," said Wilson. "One woman so tortured by a simple mistake that she goes over the edge."

Other songs get reworked as well, including "The Little Drummer Boy," one of the most grievous victims of December overexposure. Wilson and the band have re-imagined the song in a Middle East musical setting with Pipa Pinon lending lead vocals. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is daringly mashed up with the Police hit "Roxanne."

It's all in the spirit of bring a little freshness and a little fun to a season that is often missing both. At the same time, Wilson will have a kind of memory shrine at the show, dedicated to all those who have died in the past year, again inviting us to reflect on the meaning of the season.

"Christmas has become all about gimme, gimme, gimme," he said. "And I can't be holier than thou. I'll have product in the lobby for sale. But the idea, the original concept, was aimed at people who need to find a reason to believe in Christmas again, people who have always loved Christmas, but are just burned out by the way we do it nowadays. It's about helping people find joy in this time of year."

Santa Cruz Sentinel

New band puts new twist on old songs

Rhan Wilson does nothing ordinary. The creator of "An Altared Christmas," the live show and album that reframes common Christmas tunes in a minor key, has put together a new band, and there's nothing ho-hum about it.
ROMP is an anagram of the first names of the four members of the band "" Wilson, Olaf Schiappacasse, Matt Bohn and Patti Maxine. All in the new band have played in Wilson's "Christmas" extravaganza; three of the four ROM have been part of the house band at the "Planet Cruz Comedy Hour."
The band is unusual not only for its instrumentation "" it will use everything from the baritone ukulele to the lap-steel guitar "" but for its off-beat treatment of beloved old songs. Chuck Berry's already bizarre "My Ding-a-Ling" performed in a minor key and sang in a Russian accent. The 1960s chestnut "Ode to Billie Joe," about the day "Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge," is combined with the beat of the late Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" to create the "Ode to Billie Jean."
"Proud Mary," "Harper Valley PTA," songs from Grace Jones and Gogol Bordello, all get thrown in the whirl and come out a bit different, said Wilson.
"We're not trying to make every song we do be odd or weird," he said. "We're just looking to have fun. I've been in a lot of bands, and all I want now is to play music and have some fun."