Concert Review: Old-School Boston Rockers Revisit the Christmas Comfort Zone

At this time of year, a bit of silliness can be expected and even appreciated. The Fools doing a metal song about holiday-shopping stress? Of course.

By Brett Milano

Cover art for The Fools Christmas album.

Cover art for The Fools Christmas album.

The Christmas season is always a good time to revisit your comfort zone. That could mean watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the three-dozenth time…or it could mean seeing a house full of old-school Boston rockers play (mostly) seasonal tunes at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. The Regent’s tossed its “Rock & Soul Christmas Revue” for the past five years, and it always sports a nostalgic tone: This year’s lineup included members of the Cars (Greg Hawkes) and the J.Geils Band (Danny Klein), plus a partial reunion of early-‘80s arena rockers New England and a two-song cameo by the Fools, who formed in 1976 and may now be Boston’s longest-running rock band (unless you still count Aerosmith as local). And the house band was anchored by keyboardist Mitch Chakour, whose Mission Band once played every long-gone New England blues dive there was.

It’s a lineup that would have rocked the Channel in 1983; this year it was at least enough to draw half a house to the Regent on a snowy night.

At this time of year, a bit of silliness can be expected and even appreciated. The Fools doing a metal song about holiday-shopping stress? Of course. Chanteuse Erin Harpe vamping her way through one of those seducing-Santa songs? Sure. And bassist Danny Klein leading his Full House band through a mini-set of J. Geils covers, even though the real J. Geils Band is lately back on the road? Hell, Klein’s band is spirted and a lot cheaper to see. And they did a seasonal tune for the diehards, a Geils original called “Come On to the Chrstmas Party.” The original Geils version, credited to the Snowballs and featuring chipmunk-speeded Peter Wolf vocals, was never released; you only know it if you were listening to WBCN in the early ‘80s when they had it as a radio tape. So this performance ranked as a great in-joke for the three people that probably got it.

Another friendly throwback came from New England—actually just bandmembers John Fannon and Hirsh Gardner on vocals and acoustic guitars—doing their 1979 track, “Don’t Ever Want to Lose You.” Originally produced by Kiss-meister Gene Simmons and a major local/minor national hit, the record had the celestial harmonies and mile-high production that came to define ‘80s arena rock. And darned if it didn’t sound just as grandiose with only the guitars and harmonies—proof that arena rockers just have overstatement in their blood. Taking the subtler approach was the Cars’ Greg Hawkes, who played banks of keyboards in that band but is lately in love with the ukulele. Along with the Cars’ still-wonderful “Drive,” his set included a cult classic that he played on in pre-Cars days: Martin Mull’s “Santa Doesn’t Cop Out on Dope.” Mull’s mock-earnest public service announcement went over plenty of heads upon its original 1973 release, and Hawkes’ soft-spoken version was another in-joke for the lucky few.

And of course, some things about Christmas are evergreen. In that category we’ll put soul wailer Barrence Whitfield doing Clarence Carter’s mid-sixties chestnut, “Back Door Santa.” He’s been singing this one for years—in fact, we’re pretty sure he did it at the Channel in 1983—but its innuendo remains delicious and Whitfield has the perfect voice for it. If our decades in Boston rock taught us anything, it’s that you can’t ask for a warmer holiday sentiment than “I ain’t like old Saint Nick/ He don’t come but once a year.”

Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.

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