A Happy Holiday Music Guide
By Lou Fancher
Swinging from one high note to the next, the 2022 winter holiday roundup of live music performances in the East Bay offers both a promise and a dare. Unless one’s heart has been turned to stone during the chaos, corruption, high cost—and let’s say it—cacophonous horribleness of the last three years, these shows selected for variety are certain to heat up one’s ticker.
With artists known to be reliable, dynamic, fantastic performers, their live and in-person energy will add the extra groove that sets toes tapping, hands clapping and hearts fluttering. The music from these folks might even spin one’s soul enough to make one boogie one’s woogie. That’s the promise.
The “dare” of these concerts is available to those people who fear they have forever caved to the infinite pressures of life’s metaphorical daggers and bullets. For anyone feeling locked into a jaded, cynical, bitter mindset who holds on for dear life to an inner boulder rumbling around in the chest that blocks all joy, I dare them to let go. One may attend one of these shows—or several, if that’s what it takes to melt a mindset.
Despite every effort one makes to resist release from Scrooge-like bondage or to stave off the idea that through music and art-making humanity can form bridges, one’s clung-to despair will be dashed to smithereens. So I say, be brave and be uplifted in this holiday season. Dare to listen and come to believe that the power of music can elevate a person and their loved ones above the fray of today. Dare and prepare to have some fun.
A bonus plug for taking the leap says the Bay Area has it all: from The Klezmatics’ “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” to ConFunk Shun’s “Holiday Fun, Funk & Groove” to invigorating Black gospel and interfaith holiday music from the beloved Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir to the cherubic voices of the Grammy Award-winning Pacific Boychoir Academy to Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale’s gut-punching Handel’s Messiah.
And then, there’s a New Parish adults-only gig with show-stopping West Coast rapper Azchike; Chanticleer’s annual “A Chanticleer Christmas”; solo keyboard and guitar shows at Oakland’s most intimate piano bar, The Alley Piano Bar & Restaurant; Larry Vuckovich All-Star Quintet’s “Bringing in the New Year in Swinging Style” jazz at Yoshi’s; four-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Ruthie Foster with gospel, blues, jazz, folk and soul in Berkeley; and one supercharged musical not-to-miss event in San Francisco that makes it worthwhile to ride on BART or drive over the Bay Bridge (don’t worry, attendees will dance their way home, even on water).
Collectively, these shows barely tap the complete keg of live holiday music in mid-December. Truly, residents of the East Bay may lack for many things, but they live amid blessed, musical abundance.
Freight & Salvage
Grammy-winning The Klezmatics like to say they “erupted out of New York City’s East Village in 1986” to bring Eastern European Jewish music into the contemporary spotlight. Infused with humanitarian and human rights messages, the sounds and swerves of their wild and wooly repertoire bear vestiges of Arab, African, Latin and Balkan rhythms, jazz and punk music.
What I know, when Klezmer and American folk collide in this holiday show, is that sparks will fly. Focused on Woody Guthrie’s Hanukkah songs, with lyrics in English and all of it illuminated by the band’s updated Eastern European 250-mile-per-hour musical delivery, audiences will be happy, joyous and possibly risk becoming dedicated (addicted?) to The Klezmatics for life. Saturday, Dec. 17, 8pm.
To hear Grammy-nominated Ruthie Foster is to take a little journey to heaven. With nine studio albums reflecting her command position on gospel, blues, soul, funk and jazz thrones, Foster’s latest, Healing Time, shows off her songwriting as well as her marvelous voice. One won’t want to miss the chance to capture on stage an angel who knows and sings with the weight of earthly existence but never fails to soar each time she opens her mouth. Audiences can latch onto her wings and fly along at the Freight. Friday, Dec. 16, 8pm.
Con Funk Shun’s 20 hit singles include eight Top Ten R&B hits and a decades long history that is represented in the seminal 2002 recording, Money-Maker, Best Of Con Funk Shun, on their Millennium Collection. Tight choreography, smooth ballads, hip jiving tunes (yes, that’s an ok phrase to use when it comes to Con Funk Shun) and intense clay-guitar and horn arrangements laid a track from their origins and along the way to 2022 by placing four consecutive Gold and one Platinum album on the charts.
Heralded in mainstream and industry press as the very definition of a dance party’s best moments and pumping with rhythm and reach that extends into 2022, the show has them performing classic hit songs from their newly released CD, “Home For Xmas.” Audiences can celebrate their 40th anniversary release of “Love’s Train,” recently re-recorded by Silk Sonic and made #1 on this year’s charts, and go retro with Con Fun Shunk’s swivel and swing. Dec. 16-18, various times.
The Larry Vuckovich All-Star Quintet takes the stage in late December with “Bringing in the New Year in Swinging Style,” an evening featuring the music of Count Basie, Neil Hefti, James Moody, Duke Ellington and more. Band members in addition to Vuckovich include Jamie Davis, vocals; Steve Heckman, tenor sax; Rob Roth, tenor sax; Kai Lyons, guitar; John Wiitala, bass; Leon Joyce, drums.
As a pianist, there isn’t a keyboard in the country that would be anything less than thrilled to have Vuckovich tickling, tapping or tenderly caressing its ivories. Watching him lead a band or working the audience with a rapt story recounted from his extensive life story amounts to witnessing a master at his craft. (Getting him to chat about teaming up with Jon Hendricks for their CD, Reunion, for example, might be worth the ticket price alone.) Humor and harmony and hard driving jazz; what could be better? Dec. 28, 8pm.
Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir
There are two opportunities to catch this amazing choir in action—and I mean ACTION. There’ll be nobody standing still when founding artistic director Terrance Kelly leads the choir at the 14th Annual South Bay Holiday Concert at the Mountain View Center for the Arts on Dec. 22 after a two-year pandemic hiatus. A second performance doubles the pleasure (or is a second best option if one misses the East Bay show) when in two performances the choir brings the 33rd Christmas Eve Concert on Dec. 24 to San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall.
This is a collective body of music that moves—and sings everything from Black gospel to globally-wise folk and holiday songs that move hearts. It’s recommended that one not hesitate to get tickets now, before it’s too late. Dec. 22 and Dec. 24, various times.
Pacific Boychoir Academy
Ignore the stuffy sounding emblem of “academy” because these young singers embody all the heartfelt, earnest aspirations and rebellious spirit of childhood. What’s more, the superior training they receive has garnered the choir nine independent albums, domestic and international tours, three Grammy Awards with the San Francisco Symphony and the rarity of their position as the only secular North American boychoir school outside of the East Coast.
“Harmonies of the Season” is reflective of the choir’s broad range that begins with Rachmaninoff, Bach, Mahler and Mozart and extends to traditional and contemporary African-American spirituals. Performances are at Oakland’s The Cathedral of Christ the Light and the St Mary’s College Chapel in Moraga. Dec. 17 at 8pm and Dec. 18 at 4pm, respectively.
The vocal ensemble’s annual “A Chanticleer Christmas” exposes the luminous voices that have earned Chanticleer high reputation. Recognized not only with two Grammy awards and the prestigious ASCAP/Chorus America Award, the troupe, while upholding grand classical music traditions, is always seeking new boundaries to cross. Impeccable attention is paid to authenticity, balanced voices and effective acoustics that mean even the configuration of where each singer stands in relation to others is scrutinized. It’s a matrix of music-making and rich human creativity.
This year, a new jazz arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by the Grammy-nominated arranger, Amanda Taylor, will be featured. Plus, what is being billed as “a raucous close with Joseph Jennings’s classic Spirituals,” sounds like an intriguing setup. One may hang out with Chanticleer at First Church Berkeley and experience unparalleled virtuosity in voices. Dec. 23, 7:30pm.
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale
About two minutes into Handel’s masterful Messiah, most people begin to sense they are in for a thrill. For anyone worried they won’t recognize any of the tunes, they will. But if for some reason one has bypassed the iconic work in years past, the PBO&C will entice to make it a holiday tradition forevermore. Handel’s magnificent music conveys passionate rage, perfect joy, poignant sorrow and the most rousing hallelujah since, well, since before the work’s most famous “Hallelujah Chorus” was composed and performed.
In two appearances at First Church, Berkeley, Richard Egarr conducts the 150-minute, one-intermission performance that features as soloists Stefanie True, soprano; Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Tortise, tenor; and Joshua Bloom, bass. Dec. 17 and 18, various times.
The New Parish
One may get in line to see big talent up close when Los Angeles-based rap artist Azchike rockets north to this small and perfect for solo acts venue in the East Bay. Headlining a collective he represents, AzCult (special nod to AzSwaye and AzBenzz), Chike is a rapper with momentum. He dropped his first songs around 2013 and hasn’t stopped moving since.
In 2017, his single, “Burn Rubber Again,” surpassed 13 million SoundCloud plays. Soon thereafter, he signed with Shoreline Mafia and released his first official mixtape, My World. There’s more to his story, and he’s not shy about telling it. So parents may leave the kids at home and get on down to Oakland’s New Parish for a holiday rap infusion. Dec. 18, 8pm.
The Alley Piano Bar and Restaurant
This joint has been around since 1934, and having survived the test of time and then some—that’s code speak for The Pandemic Shut Down Great Live Music For Way Too Long—the grand piano located just past the main bar is once again open for business. Songs from the Great American Songbook are the bedrock from which Broadway hits, jazz standards and classic songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin and many others unfold. Resident pianists Bryan Seet and Jef Labes or resident guitarist Paul Hlebgar are the shining stars on the music menu.
Lucky folks can snag one of the 12 nearby bar stools, but there’s not a bad seat in the house. They may bite into a Tony John Burger or Alley Special Steak or Ally Fried Chicken or go for a Combo Plate while sipping a mixed drink and enjoying a throwback evening with keeper tunes. All of December, check calendar for artist and time.
Lorraine Hansberry Theatre
The world premiere of HALIE! The Mahalia Jackson Musical, directed by Darryl V. Jones and co-written with his late friend, Wendy E. Taylor, celebrates the life of the legendary gospel singer and Civil Rights activist. The music-packed production begins in Jackson’s birthplace, New Orleans, and follows her path to becoming the Queen of Gospel. A stellar cast includes Jones, along with Jeannine Anderson, Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. and Sam Faustine. I need not say more, other than these five last words: Trust me. Get tickets. Go. Through Dec. 24, various times.