Greenwich resident Rob Mathes will kick off his 18th Annual Christmas Concert weekend on Dec. 16 with a show he describes as "a big jam session of truly great musicians."
The singer, songwriter and composer will bring to the stage some of his favorite pieces for three holiday performances over that weekend, which Mathes says will "rip the roof off" the Pepsico Theater at SUNY Purchase.
Greenwich Citizen caught up with Mathes to learn more about the concert, the artist's strong ties to Christmas, and his favorite holiday music.
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This is your 18th annual Christmas Concert program. Tell us about the program and who is performing.
Every year, we have a rotating cast of world-class musicians from the New York Studio scene, all superstars in their own sense, behind-the-scenes guys that play on records all the time, but guys you don't necessarily hear about or read about on the front page.
My horn section is made up of Jeff Kievit on the trumpet, who has played with Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Elton John; Tim Ries is on tenor sax and Mike Davis is on trombone, and both of whom are in the Rolling Stones horn section and just got off the road with them; Aaron Heick is on alto sax and he played all over the recent Sting record I produced. The rest of the horn section plays regularly on Broadway.
Will Lee, from the "Late Show with David Letterman," is on bass. Billy Masters, who has played with Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss is playing guitar; Joe Bonadio is playing drums and Ricky Knutsen is playing keyboard.
The concert features my 40-voice choir and vocalists James "D-Train" Williams, Tabitha Fair and Ian Cron. James, in particular, is one of the country's great African-American voices and will sing a number of solos this year. I am truly featuring him.
This year, we are doing three concerts again at the small intimate space of the Pepsico Theater at Purchase. I love that space because it seats 700 and is right over the Greenwich border off King Street on the Purchase College campus. The Performing Arts Center there is gorgeous and that theatre sounds amazing and is home. To play the show three times is more joyous for us, since it is about exploring things musically and jamming as musicians. We love to have fun and stretch out musically. It is a big jam session of truly great musicians and the more we get to play, the better.
This year, we are going to rock out. I realized we could do the song "When Love Comes To Town," the one U2 wrote for B.B. King, because it is appropriate to Christmas and is a cover that people have loved when I have done it in the past. I found a way to make it my own a few years ago when I arranged it for a church on Easter morning, of all things, in Southern California. My first born daughter, Emma, is turning into a really strong singer, and she slayed everyone a few years ago by singing a solo. I'll have a new solo for her this year, and we'll also play a new Dylan arrangement I have done, plus a new Chanukah song I wrote. There is always something new plus the funky instrumentals for the horn section and the carol arrangements, and the favorites we have to play like "William The Angel" and "Wake Up, It's Christmas Morning."
What is it with you and Christmas? Why is the holiday so special for you?
The story is astonishing and still relevant. So moving that even in this Hitchens/Dawkins/agnostic universe that permeates our culture it carries weight. The idea that transcendence would enter the world not in an all- encompassing power but with humility and grace and love is still a beautiful idea, and it has always moved me to write.
My birthday is around Thanksgiving and the days grow short, the nights get cold and the idea of Santa Claus, Jimmy Stewart, your Mom and Dad, Brothers and Sisters, now my beautiful wife and three incredible daughters huddled by the fire singing carols is a great one and gets me going. The classic line I have used time and time again is that like a dog I go into "heat" around turkey day. "Christmas Is Coming."
How many holiday songs have you composed over the years?
Not quite a hundred, but not far from a hundred. Right around there.
What do you try to convey in a holiday song?
I hate `baubles, bangles and beads' songs. I love songs that convey the meaning of the season. Winter, love, closeness, sacrifice, grace, warmth, hope, thanksgiving, charity, selflessness, humility. Those things. The manger. The baby. Christ and what was to happen over the next 33 years after Mary's baby was born and what it means from a religious and even non-religious standpoint. Is there any meaning for the non-religious person? That is a good question. The single words above would tend to make the answer to that question "Yes."
Do you have a personal favorite of these works?
My favorite songs I have written around Christmas are "William The Angel," "Wake Up, It's Christmas Morning," "The Magi's Journey" (after T.S. Eliot) and "As I Came Over The Hill."
"The Light in the Window," which is now one people ask for every year, is a new favorite, but that is not a Christmas song. It is decidedly a Chanukah song and written for and inspired by Rabbi Mark Golub. We will definitely play that, though this year with percussion for the first time. Joe Bonadio is bringing his djembe to play on that one. Every other year we have played it just on acoustic guitar with Ian Cron and me singing it.
What are some of your favorite Christmas songs by others?
"In The Bleak Midwinter" is my favorite Christmas song ever, bar none, text by Christina Rossetti and music by Gustav Holst (not the other setting by Harold Darke). My least favorite is "The Twelve Days of Christmas." By `five golden rings' I'm done. Get me out of there!
"Silent Night" is incredible. "O Come All Ye Faithful" is remarkable. "The First Noel" is a dream. From a secular standpoint, "The Christmas Song" by Mel Torme (Chestnuts) and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" are absolutely perfect compositions.
Your Christmas Concert is a charity event. What organizations will benefit, and why did you choose them?
I always wanted it to be a charity, because it felt absolutely wrong to have it be otherwise. The audience allows us to play music, which is a gift, so why not take their money and try to funnel it back, after the expenses are paid, toward something positive.
World Vision has been affiliated with my church, Trinity Church in Greenwich, for years, and I went with World Vision to visit Rwanda in 2003, so they have been my go-to charity. We have done the concert for other local charities occasionally, when inspired, or a need arises as it occasionally has. A few years ago, a child died in my wife's first grade classroom of brain cancer, and so we supported a cancer charity in honor of Max Scotti, the boy who died. This year the concert is for World Vision again.
Rob Mathes' 18th Annual Christmas Concert will be held at 8 p.m. on Dec. 16 and Dec. 17 and 3 p.m. on Dec. 18 at The Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, N.Y. Tickets are $75, $60, $45 and $35. For tickets, visit The Performing Arts Center website at www.artscenter.org, call 914-251-6200 or stop by or contact The Music Source in Old Greenwich at www.themusicsource.org or 203-698-0444.