Alex Lynne and Jonathan Hughes had modest intentions when they recorded a lovely, striped down version of "Christmastime Is Here," that perennial holiday classic from "A Charlie Brown Christmas," about a decade ago
"We both liked the song a lot, and doing a recording of it seemed like a cool alternative to a Christmas 'card' for our friends and families," Lynne says.
That one song has since multipled like gifts under the tree on Christmas morning with the creation of nearly 70 original holiday songs that are being written, performed and recorded by a group that has grown to about 20 area musicians. On Sunday, they'll gather for a second year to perform the songs under the moniker "Robot Holiday" in the Sportsmen's Tavern.
Look around some more and you'll find the holiday spirit is very vibrant on the Buffalo music scene, whether it's through the creation of new holiday songs, the performance of traditional fare or benefit concerts to help the needy. Turn on Star 102 and you'll hear Scott Celani's original tune "Christmas by the Lake"; McCarthyizm gathers some musical friends for its annual Friends of the Night People holiday benefit concert Dec. 17 in Nietzsche's; and Pat Shea is preparing for his 15th annual Christmas concert Dec. 22 in the Lancaster Opera House.
>Let's write some songs
The list of participants in what is now called Robot Holiday reads like a who's who of Buffalo musicians. Joining Hughes and Lynne are Buffalo Music Hall of Famers Rob Lynch, Joe Rozler and Jim Whitford; the long list continues with such musiians as Joelle Labert, Dave Mussen, Dee Adams, Tim Mroz, Naryan Padmanabha, Doug Lambert, Guillermo Izquierdo, Erin Roberts, Rob Falgiano and Lisa Forrest.
"It was just very natural adding people as we went along," Hughes says. "A few years ago it just bloomed quickly and we decided it was too much fun not to have more people involved and we should have a full album instead of a few songs."
Some of the songs like "Four Christmases and Counting" by Lynne or "Yesterday's Snowflakes" by Dee Adams have themes that touch on tradition -- love, family, giving thanks. But others have a twinkle in their eye as you can tell by titles such as "Christmas Makes Me Sing Low" by Lynch, "Reindeer Power" by Mussen or "Winter Robotland" by Hughes. (You can hear the songs for free via the project's website, www.robotholiday.com; a CD will be given out with paid admission on Sunday.)
Hughes says there are no rules in writing the Robot Holiday songs. "A lot are holiday, but are by no means traditional. Some of these aren't even holiday songs, but are about winter," Hughes says. "They aren't necessarily anti-Christmas, but there is certainly some annoyance with the holiday expressed, especially the commercialization of the holiday. Early on, we wanted all the music to be an alternative to the awful music we get forced to listen to for two months out of the year."
Lynne says she loves the fact that the music "is the celebration of nontraditional Christmas and holiday music."
"Everyone involved feels the need for a break from the Christmas songs you tend to hear over and over on the radio, so that became a focus of our recordings," Lynne says. "And it's a chance to work with some of the best musicians in Buffalo. Most of us have the desire to play music with each other, but either don't have the time or don't make the time to do it -- and this is a great excuse to work together. There's a great mix of people involved at this point."
Mussen has written more than 20 holiday/winter songs ranging from the clever country ditty "Hard Times for an Elf" to the sweet "Winter's Night" and the fun, electronica of "While You Wait on Hold," sure to speak to anyone who has been trapped by recordings while trying to make a call.
"Living in Buffalo, how can you not be influenced by the winter?" Mussen asks, adding he is also inspired by talented singers including Lynne and Labert. This year, for instance, he wrote "Winter Bells" specifically for Lynne.
"I've taken it as a challenge to write for each of the singers," he says, noting his voice just won't do to sing his songs. "I wouldn't want to inflict my voice because that wouldn't be in the holiday spirit."
For about a decade, McCarthyizm has performed a benefit Christmas show at Nietzsche's during which you'll hear one of Joe McCarthy's original holiday numbers, "The Meaning of Christmas," along with a traditional song or two.
"It's about not losing the reason why we celebrate Christmas, in all the rushing around that we do in prep for the season. But it's done in a bit of an irreverent way -- I wanted to get the point across without being sappy or preachy," McCarthy says.
The idea behind the benefit concert grew out of McCarthy's feeling of "gratitude," he says. "Sure everyone wants more, and we all fight and scratch to make a living and provide for our families. But there are so many who don't even have a fighting chance. So why not just bring a bunch of folks together to play some music, collect food, clothing and cash and give it all the less fortunate -- especially at Christmas time. And since Friends of Night People is right around the corner from Nietzsche's, I thought that would be the perfect place to give the proceeds," says McCarthy who, along with his family, has donated time there monthly for about the last seven years.
Though Celani's "Christmas by the Lake" is very popular, he didn't plan on writing it as a Christmas song until he learned from radio representatives that they had a need for holiday tunes.
"It was a song I had been working on with a completely different subject matter," says Celani, who counts Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" among his favorites for the holidays. "I changed the words and gave it a somewhat local theme and that's where 'Christmas by the Lake' came in. I had a lot of the images of being in a wintery city and put it into a love song. It came together pretty quick."
The reaction to the song has surprised Celani. "It's the oddest thing. I've gotten requests for that song in the summertime -- even in other parts of the country," he says recounting a story of playing a gig at a Southern Florida college in April and being asked to play the song. He obliged.
When writing his holiday songs, Mussen looks for alternatives to Christmas music that are still within the spirit of the holidays. "What's nice about a lot of our songs is that we have the spirit of the season, but they're not in the same vein of overly commercialized ones," Mussen says about Robot Holiday.
Lynne finds emotions run high when she starts to write. "I love this time of year, but I find myself writing about the people I miss," she says. "Holidays bring that out, for better or for worse. The song I wrote last year was an upbeat tune with lyrics that reflect a really unhappy situation. I don't know why I'm drawn to that. This year I wanted to write a sort of happy, dreamy lullaby for my baby boy, but I didn't finish it in time. So hopefully that'll be part of Robot Holiday 2012."
Singer and songwriter Pat Shea is known for his smooth, country-tinged music. But when it comes to the holidays, he is a traditionalist. You'll hear that side of him on his three Christmas CDs as well as at his annual holiday concert where he performs a nice selection of what could be called the "standards" of holiday music: "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Little Drummer Boy" and "White Christmas."
Shea's decision to make his first Christmas CD, the 1996 disc simply called "Christmas," came from his appreciation for the quieter side of the holiday.
"I had been listening to some Christmas music on the radio. It was modern pop stuff which is fine if you're in that mood, but it was a bit loud and crazy for me at that moment. So I did something a bit more mellow and peaceful."
He has since released two other holiday discs of traditional holiday and songs and says his childhood played a big role in what songs he chose.
"A lot of the memories you have about Christmas are from being a kid. My mother was always playing traditional music around the house, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis," Shea says. "You grow up with that and when you hear it, it takes you back to those memories -- that's my connection. It makes me feel good."
Some upcoming holiday concerts (see the Gusto Calendar for full listings):
*Robot Holiday Live, 7:30 p.m. Sunday in the Sportsmen's Tavern (326 Amherst St.). $10. Benefits the Food Bank of Western New York. www.robotholiday.com.
*Pat Shea Holiday Concert, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22 in the Lancaster Opera House (21 Central Ave., Lancaster). $16 advance, $20 at the door; $7 children 12 and under. www.patshea.com
*McCarthyzim Annual Christmas Benefit, 8 p.m. Dec. 17 in Nietzsche's (248 Allen St.). Two stages with performances by Potters Field, Nelson Starr and the Benjamins, Poor Ould Goat, Megan Callahan, Flatbed, Andrew J. Reimers and the Nocturnal Project. $7, less discount with donation of non-perishable food or winter clothing. Benefits the Friends of the Night People. www.mcarthyizm.com.
*Rock in the Holidays, Dec. 14 in the Ninth Ward in Babeville (341 Delaware Ave.). With Grace Stumberg Band, Free Henry and Pete Mroz. Benefit for the Food Bank of Western New York; $8 admission buys 10 food bank meals.
*Rick Smith's 20th annual Christmas Show, 6 p.m. Dec. 23 in Nietzsche's; free.