A Perfect Charlie Brown Christmas-Even For Blockheads Like Me

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When Ange said “Just find something you’d like to cover and let me know” after Comic Con, I was utterly overwhelmed. It’s still bizarre that anyone would allow me in the doors with the assumption that I’m capable and considering that fact, I only wanted to pick something that I was pretty sure I’d like. Seems like it’s much more difficult to review something you hate or have no idea about. Plus, I’m not really a critic. I know a little about everything but not a lot about anything. Combing through venue after venue, there wasn’t anything that just jumped out and grabbed me.  That is, until I pulled up “The Earl’s” site and saw they were promoting an upcoming live performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”.  The advertisement had instant appeal mainly because of the splendid memories I have of watching it as a child and the kinship that I have always felt with the main character. No matter what Chuck did, it was always wrong. Or at least- he thought it was.

I had no idea Jeffrey Butzer or T.T. Mahoney even existed nor had I ever been to the Earl. The only reason an un-hip dork like myself even knew of the place was purely because of my obsession with the cartoon “Squidbillies” and the fact that the voice of “Early Cuyler” (Unknown Hinson) frequented their stage.  I’d considered going a couple of times but much like most novel ideas that pop into my lazy brain, it died and was buried in the huge coffin of sporadic notions that rests in my frontal lobe.  That wouldn’t be the case this time.

“You’re on the list for this Friday” (so geeked!) was the response I got from Ange earlier in the week. “If you want to bring anyone with you, you’ll just need to snag them a ticket.”

I knew my friend Amee and her mother were diehard fans of the Charles Schulz classic too so it seemed it would be a fun “Christmassy” kinda thing for us all to enjoy together.  They were most appreciative for the invite even though I threatened to bludgeon them to death if they made fun of me while I was pretending to be a reporter.  An echoed response of “Mmmm….Can’t promise that” ensued but I still decided to take their smart asses anyways. They inquired as to what it was going to be like and you know how when you don’t want to take the time to find out a legit answer so you just give your assumption as solid info? Well, maybe you don’t but that’s how the incredibly slack have to play it sometimes.  The relayed assumption was that we would be sitting at tables or in seats watching oh, I dunno…a live action play of the original animation accompanied by live music.  Like most assumptions, I was wrong.   One reason I’ve prefaced the review with this information about my ignorance is so that you would know, especially if you’ve seen shows at The Earl, why I would take a 62 year old woman with arthritis in her back there to witness one.  The other would be so that you understand that this take is coming from an uncultured baboon with a very limited knowledge of classical minimalism OR pork pie hats.

“What does your gut instinct tell you?”  I asked Amee as we tried to decide if we should just stay in the make shift parking spot I had commandeered in the darkest part of The Earl’s lot.  At 8 p.m. the joint was already hoppin’ and there were very limited choices as to where we should come to a stop.  “Eh…I’m not sure. Doesn’t seem very safe.”  I felt the same but as we started to pull out; a pretty upstanding looking middle-aged fellow pulled in beside us and exited. We figured if he was o.k. with it then maybe we shouldn’t be such babies. However, as we started to leave my ride, Amee whispered “Oh no, he’s coming back.”

“Hey sir” I called out as he strode quickly to his midsize sedan. “Are you re-thinking this parking situation?”   He was. After more consideration he had decided it was a bad idea. Too dark.  He told us where there was more well lit parking and since he was so pleasant I decided to ask if he was there for the show.  “Oh yeah, it’s just wonderful. My son Matthew is really good friends with one of the musicians so I came last year. It was fabulous.”

Safely re-parked, we tracked our way down fashionable Flat Shoals Avenue completely psyched for some holiday hi jinks. Already in a great mood, when I saw the mural painted on the wall of the lounge outside I became as giddy as a girl scout who just sold her last box of Samoa’s.

The lounge itself was bustling at capacity when we entered and filled with a smoky, excited ambience.

There were a ton of younger folks but the demographic became a bit more well rounded as ticket holders began arriving for the show.  We were puzzled as to where it was going to take place until our parking lot friend (Alan) told us there was a room in the back about the same size as the eating area.  I ventured down a long corridor in search of rest room relief from my Starbuck’s Peppermint coffee when I ran into a confused young couple.

“Do you know where we get our tickets from will-call?” she asked. I had no clue but before I could respond, a door opened and out popped Jeffey Butzer. I had at least done enough research to know what he looked like and Ange had spoken with him on the phone a couple of days before the show.  He was gracious enough to give them what information he knew and as they walked away, I seized a chance to make contact.

“You’re Jeffrey Butzer right? “  I pronounced his last name like “butt-zer” which he corrected as “boot-zer”.  Cripes, I’m an idiot but I apologized (I think) and continued on timidly. “Uh, I’m Stephanie.” He knew right away who I was with no more explanation so I relayed a “hello” from Ange and the news that she had also went to the “Wu Tang Clan” show the previous night.

“Oh yeah, Wu Tang, it was crazy” he replied. “So much weed smoke in the air, I got a contact high, I don’t mess with that stuff so I didn’t really care for that part of it. Hey, c’mon in and you can see how we’ve got it set up.”

First thing I noticed-no real seating to speak of. We would be standing for the duration. It called to mind the basement of “St. Andrews Hall “ (also referred to as “Hell”) which I frequented regularly in my early twenties back in Detroit when I thought I was cool.  Undersized, shadowy but always thrash worthy. That was like ages a go though and my middle aged self has been kicked back in a chair or sitting on a blanket low these last 12 years or so. All I could think about was my poor friend’s mother. Crap, she was going to be hurting and I had only myself to blame for it.  Second thing that caught the eye was the modest stage and the room itself which had been adorned in darling, Charlie Brown themed decorations.

“The girls helped me throw all this together” he said before taking off to finish getting ready. I stood there watching the musicians’ mill about on stage for a second; thought about taking a picture but it seemed weird so I bolted. Such a goober.

The line to the back started forming around a quarter till nine and we all began falling into place. My friend’s mom took the news about the chair situation in stride and kept reassuring me that there was nothing to worry about. She’d be fine. Thus far, not a load of people besides Alan had seemed very open to talking so when I noticed the couple in front of us looked approachable and pedestrian, it seemed like a good call. Just the standard stuff…”I’m with The Backstage Beat”…”, Have you been to this before?” etc… The Q&A was met with a very cold, indifferent response from the dude and an equally bland exchange with his woman.  Amee noticed my plight and chimed in “What a fat turd. Who does he think he is?”  Needless to say, Amee will not be randomly questioning the public about their interests anytime soon.

At that point, I had started to think maybe it was just the crowd but Guy & Jen proved that theory to be a wash.  An awesomely kind couple that had shot over from Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, they were also very much inexperienced when it came to The Earl and how this whole thing was going down.  I explained what I knew and commented on how much their openness was appreciated. Like Guy said “Hey, were all just people right? What’s the big deal?”  So true.  Guy went on to profess his passion for Vince Guaraldi and confessed that he plays the “The Charlie Brown Christmas” album even in the middle of July as it’s too good to limit to any one time of the year.  I rambled on about how I’d watched the classic toon the night before in preparation, attempting to get that feeling back. That one where you’re lying in the floor, watching it in your feety pajamas by the Christmas tree, praying that one of those gifts under there is an Atari game system and not a jewelry box. Sadly, the sentiment didn’t come though. It’s something that as hard as you may try, will never be duplicated again I suspect. The best you can hope for is to relive it through your kids which I’m told is not the same either but better than nothing.

Once in the back, patrons attacked the bar with ferocity consuming their favorite libations with extreme prejudice.

During the wait before show time, “The Christmas Song” played festively in the background while an unknown (to me) black and white film played on the projection screen behind the stage.

By the time Butzer and Co. came out, it was shoulder to shoulder. A sold out mass populous of fans not only of Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi, but of our entertainer himself.  I had no idea that we were going to be lucky enough to enjoy some of his original work before the main event and all I can say is that he, along with his band (all I could hear was Chad Shivers on guitar as the crowd was so loud during the announcements)  are a marvel to watch.  They launched into a song called “The Garden of Scissors” and it was love at first listen. Watching Butzer command the organ, tiny piano, cymbal, bass drum, and xylophone practically at once makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life while he’s been doing all that.

The melody was hypnotic as his shoeless, stripe socked foot cranked away on that bass drum forcing its shiny, blue garland packaging to shimmy from his talent. Actual RESEARCH would reveal that he composed the album of the same name to go along with a screenplay he’s written.  Since the show, I’ve listened to that song 10 times or more as I keep waiting for a guy with a handlebar moustache to come riding through my living room on a penny-farthing bicycle. It’ll happen and I can’t wait.

Jeffrey asked the already considerably drunken crowd if any of us went to see the “Wu Tang Clan” last night and the response was more than reserved.  “Man, this is a white ass crowd!” was met with raucous laughter and cheering. “Well I went and I was pretty disappointed that the RZA wasn’t there. For those of you who don’t know about the “Wu”, seeing their show without the RZA would be like seeing The Beatles without John Lennon”.  Go ahead and add killer sense of humor to Butzer’s list of accolades.

He also enlightened everyone to the fact that the film playing behind him was made by a friend of his (Guy Maddin) and continued on to convey the grim news that Captain Beefheart (one of his strong influences) had passed away that day. Good gravy, people were so drunk and rowdy, I could barely hear him at times even standing right there in front. Some moron of course yelled out “Freebird” but thankfully Butzer ignored the request and went with another of his beautiful originals “She Traded Her Leg” before leaving the stage.

The next act “Sorry No Ferrari” began setting up their equipment and Amee and her mother both gave me a look like “we didn’t sign up for all this, where the hell is Charlie Brown?” but ultimately remained supportive and calm. The young dudes in the band took quite awhile getting their stuff together and scanning the room I noticed many agitated faces which blended well with the showing of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” on the screen. At long last they began their set (a complete cover of The Ventures Christmas album) to a somewhat mixed reaction at first. After the first tune “Sleigh Ride” some jerk yelled out “This sucks!” which was countered by a loyal fan “Hey! This is my favorite band!”

The guys let everyone know that this wasn’t the type of music they normally play. In my opinion, they were so good it wasn’t necessary to have to elaborate on it though. It was a bouncy, first-rate time and evoked the same “surfing with baby Jesus in his manger” emotions that the Ventures did so long ago. It was especially impressive when they announced that their drummer for the evening was a last minute replacement as you would have never known it. Incidentally, I’ve listened to some of their regular stuff today off the album “Ternary” and am totally digging it.

By the time the stage was being re-set for the main event (including tiny sparse Christmas tree) it was after eleven and my back was killing me so I knew Amee’s mom was dying. Such a trooper, she never complained. I know I’m getting old and junk but the question really began nagging as to why Butzer plays his show at The Earl? Nothing against it, it seems like a great place for indie and rock bands but his music seems like something that you would just like to sit down and have wash over you.  There’s a richness to it that requires attention which was in somewhat of a drought towards the end of the evening.  But what do I know? Maybe it’s just the kind of setting he feels most comfortable in and if that’s the case, so be it. It certainly doesn’t take away from his playing.

The room went dim as the focal point became the screen while Linus recanted one 0f THE most famous lines of scripture from the book of Luke. It was the quietest it had been all night as everyone’s eyes and ears fixated on the biblical reading at hand. After Linus told Charlie Brown “That’s what Christmas is all about” the place exploded in the welcoming back of Jeffrey Butzer (now on drums) along with the piano stylings of T.T. Mahoney and Robbie Handley on stand up bass.

Following the original soundtrack as their set list, various scenes from the special played behind them as they glided through “O Tannenbaum” with such velvet precision that you have no choice but to be enraptured by it.  The shift to “What Child is This” was natural and during it (however briefly) that feeling, the one I mentioned before, did make an appearance while watching the clips of Charlie Brown and his gang play along. It may have lasted longer if the back half of the room would have shut their traps for five seconds and paid reverence to what genius was being bestowed on them. I don’t get why anyone would feel the need to get trashed at such a refined presentation. Save that for the next “Death Cab For Cutie” concert.  It occurred to me that maybe I should yell out that there was a big sale at Urban Outfitters, but feared the attempt may go awry and cause a trampling. Kidding!

After that, the gorgeous ladies of Charlie Brown as Jeffrey and T.T. referred to them came up to add their angelic vocals to “My Little Drum”. Butzer said all of their names but the only one I could scribble fast enough was Cassie. The ladies were nothing short of excellent as they chanted the drum noises in total harmony.

After which Butzer joked that he and Mahoney had worked together so long that they finished each other’s sandwiches.  Well Mahoney actually whispered the “sandwiches” part and it was incredibly cute. T.T. also praised thier “crack” A.V. department.

When they started playing “Linus and Lucy” things got a little wild as many folks started to “dance” Peanuts style, bobbing their heads and shaking their hips.  The girls came back for “Christmas Time Is Here” and were even better than the first time around.

Butzer said in regards to having a mental set list “Hey you all know the record, let us know if we skip something!”

During “Fur Elise”, Butzer laid on the floor “Lucy” style with hands under his chin, staring tenderly into T.T.’s eyes and it was hilarious. They got serious again during “The Christmas Song” as Butzer’s drum brush delicately complimented Mahoney’s expert ivory tickling as well as Handley’s brilliant plucking. Throughout the rendition, all three of them had such a far gone expression on their faces. Almost as if they were floating on a cloud, serenading the (gone too soon) Vince Guaraldi himself.  What is that like? To have such domination over musical instruments? Third chair flute over here will almost certainly never know.

They tried to end with a bit of fun and asked if anyone knew the words to “Fairy Tale in New York” by the Pogues. A chick from the audience came up but they were unable to scare up a dude who could sing the other part. Where’s Big Mike Geier when you need him?

The would-be singer kept asking into the microphone “No man here knows the words to Fairy Tale in New York” by the Pogues? Seriously?” to which T.T. finally replied “Look, I just can’t understand what the guy is saying and I can’t bear to look at his mouth to figure it out”.  Well said! His mouth IS total corn on the cob through a barbed wire fence time. Turns out, after all her chastising….she didn’t know the words either. The book was closed on that experiment and they just decided to close out with “Jingle Bells” instead which was (to me anyways) an ideal way to end their outstanding set.

Although I may have gone into this experience blindly and really only expecting to relive a little childhood delight, I came away a fan of some fantastic artists whose careers that I am now thrilled to follow intently. No matter what kind of music you’re into, it’s impossible not to appreciate the aptitude of anyone who played that night.   On the way home, I apologized yet again to Amee’s mother and her back but she refused to hear any of it. They enjoyed all of the performances enormously and we gushed about how extraordinary they all were.  When asked if they’d come back next year the resounding reply was simply yes, but next time …..they would bring lawn chairs.