Rod Hodges walked into the Music Shed in mid-August to cut tracks for Loose Cattle’s Christmas album, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and a muggy New Orleans summer day suddenly transformed into something completely different.
“It was kinda weird,” said the Iguanas guitarist. “I had just gotten back from California and it was all dark in the studio. I plug in and suddenly I’m playing on ‘The Day It Snows On Christmas.’ It was… psychedelic.”
Hodges was one of several New Orleans musicians that Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye, co-leaders of Loose Cattle, recruited to put the finishing touches on what is certainly one of the most idiosyncratic holiday records in recent memory.
At first glance Cerveris and Kaye, along with bassist Lorenzo Wolff and drummer Eddy Zweiback, appear to have concocted a slightly left-of-center country Christmas record, but a closer listen reveals more eccentric moves. Like covering Tom Waits and Robert Earl Keen along with BR549, Willie Nelson and George Strait, then adding Joni Mitchell and Big Star to the mix. Then putting together a medley of the pop music staple “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with Charles Brown’s R&B classic “Please Come Home For Christmas.” Adding some Louisiana flavor with an original Cajun Christmas song, “Don’t Make Your Mama Cry On Christmas Day,” written by Andre and Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Cerveris. Then with a tough minded Cerveris/Kaye political carol, “Shepherds In a Parking Lot.”
Cerveris is known to New Orleanians for his work with Paul Sanchez in Nine Lives and to a larger audience for, among other things, a scintillating Broadway career that started out with the lead role in Tommy, evolved through two Tony awards, most recently Fun Home, and now has him playing Professor Pyg in the Gotham TV series. Kaye sings with Sanchez and in the hard rock band The Night Confession. She wrote and performed in the macabre and hilarious A Christmassacre Story in 2014. The two have been fronting Loose Cattle as an alternative “Johnny and June” act since 2011, but on this record they’re forging a new identity.
“My voice has more characters in these songs,” said Cerveris. “There are some songs like ‘Truck Stop Christmas’ where I leaned on the accents that I grew up with in West Virginia, but on ‘Please Come Home for Christmas’ I’m just trying to use my vocal instrument to put the song across. We’ve taken to calling it Americana because nobody knows what that is so you can put it under that banner.”
Cerveris and Kaye’s thoughts about Christmas are starkly different, which adds some frisson to the mix. “Shepherds in the Parking Lot” captures this perfectly.
There’s no wise men on the TV
No light in the east
No shepherds in this parking lot
Only fallen angels tryin’ to live in peace
It’s hard to sing
A Christmas song
“Michael loves ritual and he loves traditions,” said Kaye. “Michael and I have a very different relationship with the holidays. I hate Christmas. I’ve had a lot of death in the family, heartache; it’s a tough time of year for me. Michael loves it. He loves putting on Christmas specials, going to events, decorating the tree. I’m in shutdown mode. For us to be able to meld his enthusiasm for the holidays with the acknowledgement that it’s a tough time for some people was great and I love writing songs with him.”
Maybe you can be the wise one
Bringing love where there’s a need
For shepherds in a parking lot
Maybe fallen angels don’t have to quite believe
We can sing
This Christmas song
“Writing a Christmas song is a unique thing,” said Cerveris. “I wanted to include modern elements. There were a lot of drafts, but the early drafts were too political. It made the song smaller. So we did a lot of back and forth. It’s kind of like writing a Christmas card to the world.”
The album features two collaborations between Kaye and pianist Tom McDermott. “Tom’s work with Kim has been really important to the band,” said Cerveris. McDermott does a superb job accompanying Kaye on Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis.” But the real payday comes on the unlikely inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s nearly untouchable “River.”
“There’s no outsinging Joni Mitchell on that song,” said Kaye. “It means so much to so many people. I was terrified to sing it. The thing I love about that song is how clear her storytelling is. It’s a beautiful piece of narrative that just happens to be a song. Working with Tom on playing that song, he has some Cuban-influenced stuff that he does with his left hand on the piano, then we added that kind of wistful banjo. We tried to present it where we’re telling this story. Tom is a huge part of that storytelling, with little echoes and phrasing. He makes snow happen with his right hand at the end of the song. It’s just perfect.”
“The songs we chose say a lot about us,” said Cerveris. “Really great songwriting says something really specific and leaves plenty of space for you to fill in the rest. As a band we tend to like to have something to say.”
A Very Loose Cattle Christmas will take place December 19 at Chickie Wah Wah, with Rod Hodges, Tom McDermott, Craig Klein and other guests. Cerveris and Kaye will also be part of Judith Owens and Harry Shearer’s Christmas Without Tears December 22 and December 23 at Le Petit Theatre.
Oh Crap, It’s Christmas! Again
Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye will join the all-star cast of Oh Crap, It’s Christmas!—A Musical Holiday Spectacular, hosted by the wife-and-husband team of Debbie Davis and Matt Perrine.
This year’s renewal will again be staged at Cafe Istanbul, December 17 at 7 p.m.
The template for the event is the great 2014 album Oh Crap, It’s Christmas!, but don’t expect to hear an exact duplication of that program.
“New material every year!” promises Davis. “Never the same show, though there are always a few chestnuts, so to speak. For one thing, there will be a tuba duet. For another, I’m planning a turn from the sacred canon which I’ve never done outside the cathedral.”
The show will certainly be a mixture of sentimental favorites, comedy numbers and some eccentric choices. The tears will be a little bigger and likely to last a little longer this year because Davis is still suffering from the recent death of her father.
“We’re doing it,” she vowed. “Obviously it’s taken on a different import of late. It’s gonna be a hard year to do it but I have to do it.”
The blonde singer/ukulele player is a solid trouper and if anything her grief will add another measure of emotional depth to her performance. As usual she has assembled a great supporting cast.
“In addition to Michael and Kimberly from Loose Cattle we have traditional jazz elder statesman Steve Yocum; local chanteuse Sarah Quintana; Simpson’s animator and tuba phenomenon David Silverman; rock ’n’ roll royalty Susan Cowsill; Dallas steampunk darling Darwin Davis; guitar shredder Ben Perrine; and a cappella harmonists the Jingle Belles. The band consists of Tom Hook on piano; Alex McMurray on guitar; Richard Scott on accordion/trombone/piano; Andre Bohren on drums; Jack Craft on cello; Harry Hardin on violin; and bandleader, arranger, tubist, bassist and all around good elf Matt Perrine.”