by Jon Bosworth
Part One: Fistmas at TSI – December 23
There is something special about Christmastime in America. It is magical the way Disney World is magical, the way Hollywood is magical, the way a Michael Jackson video is magical. It is a religiously inspired, pop culture, consumerist phenomenon that causes real positivity between humans. Other cultures marvel at the disconnection Americans have from their families, leaving home to become independent early in their lives, leaving parents and relatives behind. But it is at Christmas that America, as a culture, makes the effort to be with family and revel in that kinship that transcends our staunchly independent lifestyles. The backlash of that beautiful occasion is that we are trapped in our small town with so many relatives. Albeit rewarding in many ways, it tends to make us pursue some off-time outside of the house. This has long been an inspiration for traditional Christmas shows around the River City.
In the mid-to-late 90s, local surfcore indie band The Cadets would always have a Christmas show that was among the best-attended shows of the year, every year.
“That’s how it started, it was Cadets and Thee Harmonious Fists. It wasn’t always called Fistmas, but we’ve done it for ten years,” says Cash Carter, or “Lenny Fist” as he is known while playing with Thee Harmonious Fists.
In Christmases past, the college kids would be home for the holidays and itching to get out to see what their friends have been up to all year. The Christmas show was the perfect event for this reunion. Although the Cadets have drifted to their various corners of the earth (look to Synconation.com for re-releases of this amazing band’s many albums coming soon), two of them (Bernie and Ernie Fist are also former Cadets) return to town to perform the annual Fistmas with Lenny and Winthrop Fist, who live here year-round.
“It started as a joke, but it’s been around. This is the 10th year. It started at Christmas because everyone was in town. Somehow or other it has stuck around.”
It has stuck around because it is more than just a show, it is a Jacksonville tradition. You will not have much luck catching a Harmonious Fists show throughout the year, but every Christmas, Cash gets the gang back together for a raunchy garage-rock explosion that relieves all of your dysfunctional family angst. Joining Thee Harmonious Fists on stage this year is Wooly Bushmen.
“The only point is to have fun. It’s not like a reunion show; we play every year. It is hands-down the funnest night of the year in Jax, period. The Fist goes crazy; we put on an amazing show. It isn’t rock-and-roll pyrotechnics and stuff, but we are a very fun band; we go nuts and throw the guitars around and get the audience involved. Our Fist Anthem says it all: ‘Everybody Wanna Get Fisted.’ It is violent and scary. There are not many songs in Jacksonville that have never been recorded but everyone knows the words to. The show culminates to that last song when everyone gets on the stage and sings the song. Everybody wants to get Fisted- it’s great. It’s a Jacksonville tradition. You haven’t been involved in a Christmas show in Jacksonville unless you’ve gotten Fisted.”
I think the conclusion is obvious. Go get Fisted.
Part 2: The Tedeschi Trucks Band at Florida Theatre – December 28
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. It’s not the tree vendors pitching their tents all over town or the ubiquitous holiday jingles that the local easy listening station switches its programming to this time of year that evinces this seasonal change. And, in Jacksonville, Florida, with rare exception, it isn’t the cold descent into winter that first heralds this magical season. You know it is the holiday season in Jax when the big acts come home to us. Even that faceless whiner community of bloggers cannot bemoan a lack of cultural identity this time of year because, although Jacksonville isn’t at the top of the list for the hippest new bands to play, we are certainly notorious for cultivating amazing musicians within this tiny greenhouse.
From some of the oldest blues on record to the hottest new bands hitting the national scene, Jacksonville has long been lousy with quality musicianship. International superstars ranging from Graham Parsons to Trent Reznor have called Jacksonville home, as have all sorts of luminaries in a variety of genres. However, the real hometown heroes that not-recently rang the international bell- bands that proudly touted their hometown, bringing rise to a new kind of rock that mixed blues, country, and rock and roll to create a new genre, Southern rock, that can be identified as authentic to Jacksonville- are Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. Part of Jacksonville’s connection to the Allman Brothers is Jacksonville’s own child prodigy turned blues wunderkind, Derek Trucks. Derek’s blood runs hot with Jacksonville’s musical culture.
“[Christmas] was the time you would see all of your cousins and grandparents and whoever was living out of the city would come in,” remembers Trucks “The thing that kinda sticks out is 1989 when it snowed on Christmas Eve. There was actually a small snowman in the front yard in Florida, so that one sticks out. I think I was probably 10 years old at the time.”
One of those visiting relatives was usually Derek’s uncle, Butch Trucks, a founding member (and current drummer) of the Allman Brothers Band. “That was the one time of year I used to see him back then, before I was gigging and playing on the road and would bump into him on the road, that was my one connection to that scene at the time.”
When Derek was nine years old, he started playing guitar. By 12, he was touring the country and being hailed as a child prodigy on the slide guitar.
“Thanksgiving we were often on the road. Even when my dad was on the road with me when I was young, we would miss Thanksgiving occasionally, but Christmas was a no-brainer; you’re always off for that. There’s something about that, where it is the one time all year that you’re always home.”
As a teenager, he regularly performed with the Allman Brothers Band, eventually becoming a permanent member. The position wasn’t based on nepotism, but on his skill as a blues guitarist.
“The whole Allman Brothers thing was always a very big part of my life. I knew what it was. My dad was a huge fan of that music and, having made it to the Fillmore and some of those really classic shows, I was aware of how unique it was. Even as a kid, I was listening to that music while everyone else was listening to what was on the radio, so I was kinda odd-man-out. Even then, though, you know when this shit is right and what everyone else was listening to was terrible. There was always that sense of knowing you’re in the right spot. When the Vanilla Ice album pops up, you know, I was nine and I knew that was bullshit.”
His rise to fame peaked for him when he was invited to play with Eric Clapton, a lifelong influence on Derek. But he didn’t settle for that pinnacle. He went on to form the Derek Trucks Band, which has won many awards, not the least of which is a Grammy, and created music that is quickly finding its way to legendary status among canonical bluesmen. However, lately he is not spending his time backing up the old greats, he is experiencing what it feels like to get there on your own songbook.
“There is something about playing gigs with a band you started yourself that makes it more unique and more special. We just did the Beacon Theatre with [The Tedeschi Trucks Band] a month or so ago, and we did our first sold-out show at the Beacon. I’ve done about 110 shows with the Allman Brothers at the Beacon, but there was something about doing it with our own group that was entirely different. It’s special. There is something a lot more rewarding about building something from the ground up. It’s amazing being a part of a band like the Allman Brothers with all that history, but I am under no illusion that I did it, you know? I understand that it’s amazing being a part of it, and just being able to keep that history rolling. To be a part of that legacy is a true honor, but there is something really great about grinding it out and writing your own music to get there.”
While on the road with the Allman Brothers Band in the early 2000s, Derek met blues singer Susan Tedeschi. A Grammy Award-winning musician in her own right, the two started a romance that led the Boston singer and songwriter to marry Trucks and settle into a home in Jacksonville where they are raising two children between rigorous touring schedules.
“As cliché as it sounds, Christmas is the big break we get each year where the kids are not in school and we are not touring, so they really love just everybody being home. Obviously, kids that age- my son and daughter already wrote out a Christmas list for us, so there is obviously that for kids- but it is everyone being at home and downtime with the family that matters.”
For the past five of years, Derek Trucks has played a holiday show at the Florida Theatre, where Susan often joined him to perform a sort of home-for-holidays rock show that was unlike any other performance either artist gave in their respective tours. Last year, this annual event debuted the first draft of the new Tedeschi Trucks Band.
“Now, the last handful of years we’ve been doing shows in Jacksonville right after Christmas, which has always been nice. Actually, our first show as a band with the full 11-piece group- The Tedeschi Trucks band as a full group- was at the Florida Theatre last New Year’s. So there is something special about that. We were actually kind of experimenting with it then; we wanted to try the horns section. You know, I think we were secretly hoping it wouldn’t be that much better because it’s more people to take on the road, but when we finished the gig at the Florida Theatre, I remember me and Susan just kind of having a little talk and being like: ‘We’re screwed. There’s no going back. That was really great.’ There is something nice about having this first gig with this new band, a band we really believe in, happen in your hometown. It’s nice that it worked out that way. “
The debut was actually supposed to occur in Clearwater, but their trombone player was delayed due to weather, making the Florida Theatre show the first official performance of the current lineup. “Forces of nature,” is how Derek described it. Those forces of nature have carried the new band to amazing heights, doubling their fan base and allowing the two to live a life together on the road, rather than balancing tour schedules to make sure someone is home with the kids. Their personal and professional lives have merged, and the music, the fans, and the musicians couldn’t feel more at home with the new arrangement.
“I feel like this band is a whole different level compared to anything I’ve been a part of. There is something really special about it.”
The Tedeschi Trucks Band released their debut album Revelator this year. It is a first song-based studio album for either of them, and the craftsmanship behind those songs make the most of Susan’s powerful gospel/blues vocals and Derek’s nuanced guitarmanship.
“It is an evolution of everything we’ve done. The first record is something I’m really, really happy with how it came out. We wanted to put out a song record. I know everybody in the band can play and stretch and all that, there is not a question about the musicianship on stage, so we wanted to do a record that would hold water with just the sounds and the songs and the performances.”
For fans worried they won’t get Trucks’ unfettered guitar heroics in the song-based album format, he assures them that the studio album is only half the story, and there is a special treat waiting for them with the live performances.
“We spent the last month recording every show from our last tour for a live record. It is kind of the yang to the yin of the studio record. I was digging through the 30 hours of recordings and I noticed there weren’t many songs under 10 minutes. It’s gonna be tough to fit this into a disc or two, but it’s the other side of the band. I like the idea that the studio record is more concise and to-the-point, but we’re gonna have this live record so that if anybody is concerned that the band has lost its edge, it’s there in spades. It’s all edge.”
However, local fans don’t have to wait for the live album because that experience will be delivered live and in person at the Florida Theatre on December 28.
“You know, all the shows around New Year’s every year, you’re always trying to break out new tunes. There is something about gigs after Christmas and New Year’s; you play stuff that you might never play again. You play crazy covers that you might never consider doing otherwise, so it’s always fun. Everybody in the band puts together a list of stuff they’ve heard and think the band would be great at playing, stuff that seems crazy and fun. It’s a good time to check out the group. It’s especially festive that time of year.”
Part Three: Sunbears! New Year’s Show at Birdies – December 31
The holiday season is drawing to a close and you are ready to break away from the traditional morass of family fun to party. This is the whole impetus behind the cultural phenomenon of New Year’s. What really changes except a number on a calendar? What does New Year’s really celebrate? It celebrates getting recklessly obliterated and being self-destructively decadent for one last blast before you tighten up and get a grip on your coming year. So you need a party, but you’re broke after buying all those BS Christmas gifts, and you are dreading that first credit card statement in January. We have the solution to your dilemma: Sunbears! New Year’s Party at Birdies in Five Points. It’s free, it’s sure to be a blast, and if you haven’t seen Sunbears! before, you should prepare to have your mind blown. If you have seen Sunbears! this will still be nothing short of the best time you’ve had all season, and you know it. But get there early because Birdies is small and Sunbears! isn’t the secret they used to be.
“NPR played some of our songs the other day, which was crazy. The World Cafe- totally national. Kinda bizarre. It was weird that The Huffington Post wanted to do an interview. I mean, it was awesome, but it was weird. The Huffington Post is kinda legit. A little bit,” says Jared Bowser, half of the Sunbears! two-piece rock outfit with singer/songwriter Jonathan Berlin.
Following their tour with Jacksonville’s own Black Kids and Mates of State in 2009, they did a song for the hit Nickelodeon children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba and were named by Alternative Press one of the top five unsigned bands in America. This year they raised the money to go to New York and record their first full-length album through Kickstarter.com. Add to that a burgeoning friendship with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and this band is easily fastracking from their Riverside neighborhood into playlists all over the country.
Their album, You Will Live Forever, was released November 22 of this year on New Granada Records and can be found at your favorite online retailer, or you can get physical pressings, CD or vinyl, from indie rock record stores. Their first release party was held in their label’s hometown of Tampa and followed immediately by a local release party at Jack Rabbits. They then toured from Athens up to Maine, coming home just in time to gear up for a much-anticipated hometown New Year’s show at their favorite local bar, Birdies, in the Five Points neighborhood of Riverside.
“Jonathan and I call Birdies ‘Cheers’ because we go there and we know everybody. Everybody is super cool and we think it will be a good vibe there. We just like the vibe more than a normal rock club, at least for a New Year’s party,” says Jared of the venue.
Sunbears! did their first New Year’s show in Tampa in 2009, their first New Year’s as a band. “We had this idea to play our set until midnight and project the ball dropping, and then we did a bunch of party covers: Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Queen, Prince. We had a ton of confetti and they had a balloon drop. We basically made a mess and it was a lot of fun.“ They plan to do the same sort of thing at Birdie’s this New Year’s.
The show will be free and is likely to fill out fast, so get there early, get your drink, and get ready for a hell of a show, if their last Birdies performance is any indicator.
“We played on the patio and it was definitely packed. I don’t know exactly, but there were people on the sidewalks that couldn’t get in that were still trying to watch. That was in February. It was a good crowd for sure,” he says.
To listen to the Sunbears! albums, there is a disparity in style between their debut EP, the follow-up Dream Happy Dreams, and the new stripped-down You Will Live Forever, showing a distinct curve of maturity for the band. All these releases are impressive, but their performances pull that disparity together with a visual element, as does Jonathan and Jared’s charisma on stage.
“I think somehow the live songs work. They are linked to the other ones because we play them energetically, and there are video projection elements that tie them all together. There are some new songs that we haven’t played live yet. One is acoustic guitar and vocals, so that will be a change-up, but adding some more chill songs is a good idea- it adds a dynamic so that it isn’t hyper the whole time.”
Jared assures partyseekers that they will not be disappointed if they decide to spend their 2012 New Year’s with the Sunbears!
“We’ll play something good at midnight. I’m not sure what it will be yet, but it’ll be something everyone will know and can sing along to or dance to, or whatever they want to do.”