Christmas can be a time for kicking up and celebrating, for gathering friends together, for taking solace after a tough year, or even for tearing up a little. Debbie Davis plans to do a little of all the above when she brings the fifth edition of “Oh Crap, It’s Christmas!”—her annual all-star seasonal show—to Café Istanbul on December 15. But mostly, she’ll be gathering some well-known friends together and singing a night’s worth of less-obvious Christmas classics.
The project was born when she and partner Matt Perrine did an album of that name in 2014; from the start the idea was to do Christmas music with some heart, but without the cheap sentiment. That applies to the songs on tap and to the underlying mood. “Christmas is a complicated time for a lot of people,” she says. “The times we live in are certainly terrifying. So Christmas has a lot of gravitas, but it’s also a simpler thing: It’s a chance to be a better version of yourself, to think of others a little more. Sometimes I feel like I’m saving Christmas with this show, and sometimes I feel like Christmas is saving me.” And this year? “I’ll get back to you on that one.”
This year you can expect some different songs—Davis says she has a second Christmas album on hand if anybody cares to sponsor it—and a mix of old and new cast members. Returning are Susan Cowsill, guitarist Alex McMurray (“one of the sweetest elves there is despite that gruff exterior”), keyboardist Josh Paxton (who’s taken over the musical director role while Perrine is on tour) and Davis’ mom, an opera singer. Joining this year are Beth Patterson, Meschiya Lake (who’s moved back to New Orleans after a spell abroad) and the Breton Sound’s Jonathan Pretus.
Equally important are two people who will be there only in spirit: Spencer Bohren and Leigh Harris. Both were among the great losses to the local music community in 2019, and both are close to Davis’ heart: Harris was a longtime friend and supporter, and Bohren played one of his final shows at last year’s event. Both will be represented during the show—Harris with an unusual arrangement that she once dreamed up; Bohren with a tune that he’s sung in previous years. His son Andre will also be there on piano and drums. “It wouldn’t seem right if Spencer wasn’t there in some fashion.”
If Davis has her way, the show will send everyone out with a little Christmas love in their heart. “There’s a lot to unpack this year, so to speak. But this is how I keep from getting cynical; Christmas gets better the more people you share it with.”