This year marks the 20th anniversary of JamBase. Part of the yearlong celebration includes the 20 For 20 series featuring 20 lists focusing on 20 notable topics and events of the JamBase era. The lists were compiled by current and former JamBase staff members and contributors, music industry professionals and other experts. Stay tuned for more, as the series continues throughout the year and we look back at two decades of encouraging fans to Go See Live Music!
Previous 20 For 20 Lists include Standout Debut Albums By Jam Acts, Pranks & Gags Played By Jam Acts, Festivals We’ve Lost, Memorable Reunions, Farewells Of The Past 2 Decades, Longest Jams & Standout Improvisations, Fan Sites, Memorable Halloween Concerts, Bands Covering Phish and Post-Grateful Dead Bands. Next up is a look at 20 Holiday Songs performed in the past 20 years.
Tis the season for jingle bells, silent nights, holy nights, nutcrackers, sleigh rides, Santa Claus, reindeer, menorahs, dreidels and forgotten old acquaintances. The holidays and the music that accompanies the season have influenced the jam scene for decades.
During the JamBase era, many bands and solo artists have covered classic Christmas and Hanukkah songs, and several others have written their own seasonal originals. A variety of voices and styles are represented by the 20 entries below, which span the decades and mix new with old, traditional with obscure and secular with religious.
Here’s to peace, joy and plenty of music for all in the coming year.
Phish | O Holy Night
[Video Credit: Mike’s Song > O Holy Night > Taste via LazyLightning55a]
Who says holiday songs need to be played only during the holiday season?
During their historic 13-night Baker’s Dozen residency at Madison Square Garden in July and August 2017, Phish designated a different donut flavor for each show at the legendary New York City Arena. For the 10th concert of the run held on August 2, the donut type was “Holes.”
Phish began the show with their debut cover of “Way Down In The Hole.” They started the second set with “Mike’s Song,” which led into their debut performance of the Christmas carol “O Holy Night.”
Guitarist Trey Anastasio explained how the idea to play the Christmas classic written in 1847 by French composer Adolphe Adam came from Anastasio’s daughter while driving home from the show at MSG on August 1. Here’s Trey:
Dave Matthews Band | Christmas Song
[Video Credit: “Christmas Song” – Verizon Wireless Arena – Manchester, New Hampshire – December 19, 2012]
One of a few original songs on this list, Dave Matthews Band‘s aptly titled “Christmas Song” has been performed live by the band over 100 times since its late-1990s debut.
Here’s 20 For 20 Fan Site DMBAlmanac’s entry for “Christmas Song”:
This quiet tune started out as a Dave Solo feature in early shows, and was included in Remember Two Things as one of the Dave and Tim tracks on the album compilation. Throughout the years, this song has regularly been played during the pre-holiday season, paying ode to the story of a man who had a profound impact on humanity. This song has always featured [drummer] Carter [Beauford] on backing vocals and was recorded during the Everyday studio recording sessions for release on the Platinum Christmas compilation disc. During live play, Dave usually quotes a line from The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
When introducing the song, Dave often gives a disclaimer that the song is “not a religious song, just a story” (09.18.10).
The song’s debut (introduced that night as “Blood of Our Children”) was long thought to be 12.23.92. When the unknown 12.21.92 show was released by management on June 8, 2010 as part of the DMBlive series, Christmas Song appeared in the encore, moving its known debut date back two days. There is no dialogue before or after the song to mark its first time being played, so it is still possible that the real debut came earlier than this even.
Interestingly, on four separate occasions the song has gone more than five years between plays. It was last played live by DMB on December 15, 2018.
Béla Fleck & The Flecktones | 12 Days Of Christmas
In 2008, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — at the time featuring banjoist Béla Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, percussionist Future Man and saxophonist Jeff Coffin — released a 16-track holiday album, Jingle All The Way. Guests who contributed to the album included the Tuvan throat singers Sean Quirk, Ayan-Ool Sam and Alash Ensemble, Fleck’s longtime collaborator, bassist Edgar Meyer, and klezmer multi-instrumentalist Andy Statman.
“When the Flecktones first got together, we worked out a Christmas medley – it was really fun,” said Fleck in 2008. “People loved it, and we continued to play it every year.”
Produced by Fleck, Jingle All The Way featured Flecktone arrangments of holiday favorites “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and others, including a medley made up of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” The record closed with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.”
Perhaps most impressive is the version of “12 Days Of Christmas” that was arranged for the album. The band moves into different time signatures and different keys for each of the 12 days represented in the song. The time signatures correspond to the day, so the fifth day is in 5, the sixth day is in 6, the seventh day is in 7, etc.
ALO | Christmas Time
In 2008, Brushfire Records recruited a number of acts on the label to contribute to the compilation This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday, Volume 1. ALO recorded a studio version of the original “Christmas Time” for the release, which also featured such Brushfire artists as Jack Johnson, G. Love, Mason Jennings and Rogue Wave. Zach Gill handles lead vocals on “Christmas Time” and also contributed his take on “Silent Night” to the 11-track compilation.
ALO’s only live performance of “Christmas Time” found on the Live Music Archive took place at SOhO Restaurant and Music Club in the band’s hometown of Santa Barbara, California on December 29, 2006.
“That one was written a long time ago,” Gill joked after the debut of the song. “It’s an annual tradition to play that one.” Pro-shot video of the performance is available on YouTube.
“Christmas Time” was recently re-released as part of the soundtrack for the 2019 film Fighting With My Family. In 2011, This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday, Volume 2 was put out by the label featuring ALO’s “Let It Ride.” The quartet also contributed “Winter Time (Be A Little Closer)” to the recently released The Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday, Volume 3.
Umphrey’s McGee | Dick In A Box
In December 2005, Saturday Night Live aired the digital short “Lazy Sunday” featuring cast members Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. The song was concieved by SNL writers Akiva Schaffera and Jorma Taccone, who along with Samberg make up the comedy team The Lonely Island and became an instant viral hit.
One year later on December 16, 2006, SNL and The Lonely Island had another digital short go wildly viral soon after it aired. Along with that week’s episode’s host Justin Timberlake, The Lonely Island wrote and recorded a memorable video for their original song, “Dick In A Box.”
A few weeks later, Umphrey’s McGee ended a hometown run of shows at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom with a concert on New Year’s Eve. The encore that night began with guitarist Brendan Bayliss and percussionist Andy Farag — complete with Christmas packages covering their packages ala the digital short — leading a debut performance of “Dick In A Box.”
The band posted official video footage of “Dick In A Box” at the Argon which itself had some viral juice and to date has racked up over 460K views on YouTube. Umphrey’s performed “Dick In A Box” one week later aboard Jam Cruise 5 but have kept it under wraps ever since.
the Disco Biscuits | Wizards In Winter
For the past two decades, Florida-based Trans-Siberian Orchestra has been a key source for holiday music. In 2004, Mason, Ohio resident Carson Williams created a spectacular holiday light show, syncing thousands of colored lights with TSO’s “Wizards In Winter” — an instrumental track from their 2004 album, The Lost Christmas Eve.
Copycat homemade light shows soundtracked to Trans-Siberian Orchestra sprang up around the country in response to Williams’ viral sensation. TSO later used a photo of Williams’ house as cover art for a promotional single version of “Wizards In Winter.”
On December 29, 2007, The Disco Biscuits performed a show at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom. The second set that night included the often covered “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” from the Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. Bisco continued to spread holiday vibes during the show’s encore, segueing from “7-11” into their debut cover of “Wizards In Winter.” Two nights later, tDB again played “Wizards In Winter” during their first set on New Year’s Eve in Camden, New Jersey.
The Disco Biscuits summoned “Wizards In Winter” a few more times throughout 2008. The song went unplayed by the band until their 2016 New Year’s Eve concert in Atlanta when they busted it out after 370 shows to open the third set and lead into the year-end countdown (see video above).
Trey Anastasio Band | Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy
Despite not nearly being a complete performance of the song, Trey Anastasio Band‘s cover of “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” makes the list primarily due to the effort put forth by multitalented TAB member Natalie Cressman.
According to Cressman’s official website, the trombonist/vocalist was, “an aspiring ballet dancer until her junior year of high school,” but, “she changed courses when an injury sidelined her dance aspirations.” Cressman’s dancing skills were briefly on display one night in New York City in 2014 during TAB’s show at The Beacon Theatre on December 12.
While humorously introducing the members of the band during a cover of Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood,” Anastasio joked that “We’re very unfortunate to have to tell you that Natalie ‘Chainsaw’ Cressman could not be with us tonight, so we had to get a replacement for her. But, luckily we were able to find a replacement across the street at Lincoln Center. So would you please welcome tonight the incredible Svetlana Nutcracker.”
At that point, the band broke into a brief version of “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker while Cressman ballet-danced across the historic Beacon stage. Trey then half-heartedly tried to get trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick to put her ballet skills on display, but JHa laughingly declined the invitation.
Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, Jackie Greene & Others | Feliz Navidad
In December 1997 Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh hosted a benefit concert for his Unbroken Chain Foundation that was dubbed “Philharmonia” featuring appearances by Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bruce Hornsby, Donna Jean Godchaux, Edie Brickell, David Grisman, Jackie LaBranch, Graham Nash and Michael Tilson Thomas. A second Philharmonia benefit happened again in 1999.
A decade later, Lesh brought back Philharmonia in December 2009. Two more events were held in 2010 and 2011. Philharmonia 2009 took place at The Tenderloin School in San Francisco and featured Lesh, Weir, Jackie Greene, Sunshine Becker and Zoe Ellis. Following the set, the musicians also led a sing-along of “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Twelve Days Of Christmas” and “Amazing Grace.”
Philharmonia 2010 returned to The Tenderloin School and again featured Lesh, Weir, Greene and Becker, along with Phil’s son Grahame Lesh and Jeff Pehrson. That performance ended with “Feliz Navidad” and Becker and Pehrson leading the crowd in carol sing-alongs.
San Francisco’s Bay Area Women’s & Children’s Center hosted Philharmonia in 2011. The lineup featured Phil and Grahame Lesh, as well as Grahame’s brother Brian Lesh, Weir and Greene and Jonathan Levine, Jordan Levine and Leena Culhane.
The String Cheese Incident | Jingle Bells
The String Cheese Incident and some of their friends got together on December 21, 2000 for a special acoustic concert at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colorado benefitting local charity organizations. Joining SCI that winter solstice night were Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, The Rippingtons’s percussionist Steve Reed and Leftover Salmon guitarist Vince Herman and the late banjoist Mark Vann.
SCI debuted covers of Hank Willams’ “Lost Highway,” Wernick’s “Huckling the Berries,” Jimmy Buffett’s “Hot Buttered Rum” and the LoS-led “Y’all Come.” At the onset of the evening’s encore, The String Chees Incident and their special guests premiered a cover of “Jingle Bells.”
Perhaps the most well-known songs associated with Christmas — despite no outright mentions of the holiday or season — “Jingle Bells” was published in 1857 by American James Lord Pierpont. Pierpoint, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War against his father and the Union Army, originally called the song “The One Horse Open Sleigh.”
The bluegrass version “Jingle Bells” performed by SCI and the other musicians on stage at the Boulder Theater featured altered lyrics that mentioned nearby mountain towns Ward and Rollinsville and other shenanigans.
Tea Leaf Green | Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer
In 2011, the Tea Leaf Green lineup at-the-time of guitarist Josh Clark, bassist Reed Mathis, keyboardist Trevor Garrod and drummers Cochrane McMillan and Scott Rager celebrated the holidays with a concert at The Palm Ballroom in San Rafael, California. Clark created limited edition posters for the event — a signed version of which were given away to those who donated toys.
TLG’s 2008 studio album, Raise Up the Tent (produced by Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker’s David Lowery), featured their original, “Let Us Go.” While that track opened the record, it was selected for the encore on December 17, 2011 in San Rafael.
The performance of “Let Us Go” that night saw the band weaving in and out of the silly Christmas tune “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.”
Prior to the “Grandma” encore mashup, Tea Leaf Green incorporated their original “New Year’s Eve” into the second set. The song appeared on Tea Leaf Green’s 1999 self-titled debut album.
The Barr Brothers | Dear Mrs. Claus
Back in 2011, The Barr Brothers shared their original Christmas song “Dear Mrs. Claus.” The band featuring siblings and members of The Slip — guitarist Brad Barr and drummer Andrew Barr — posted a note along with the new tune, explaining:
In between tours, The Barr Brothers grabbed the harp, a couple of jingle bells and some holiday spirit and spent a day at their friend, Patrick Watson’s studio to record their first Christmas single “Dear Mrs. Claus.” The band really felt Mrs. Claus needed a Christmas song dedicated to her.
The Canadian-born brothers performed “Dear Mrs. Claus” on the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight Holiday Music Special that was broadcast in December 2011. Watch that clip above.
Dark Star Orchestra | Run Rudolph Run
Back in December 1971, the Grateful Dead covered “Run Rudolph Run” with Ron “Pigpen” McKernan providing lead vocals. The song associated with Chuck Berry was not performed by the Dead following the handful of plays it received that month.
Dark Star Orchestra, the band preserving the Grateful Dead’s legacy by re-creating the legendary group’s shows, has covered “Run Rudolph Run” a number of times in concert. DSO performed the Dead’s December 6, 1971 concert at Felt Forum in New York City featuring “Run Rudolph Run” in 2013 and again in 2018. They’ve also re-created the December 15, 1971 concert at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan which was the Dead’s final performance of the song.
“Run Rudolph Run” has been played by Dark Star Orchestra several additional times during the band’s “elective” shows that are not reliant on previous Dead concerts as well as in the “filler” slot of shows coming after the re-created encore.
My Morning Jacket | Xmas Curtain & More
In October 2000, My Morning Jacket did Christmas “fiasco style” with the release of their holiday EP, Does Xmas Fiasco Style, featuring their originals “Xmas Curtain,” “I Just Wanted to Say” and “Xmas Time Is Here Again.” The EP also included covers of Nick Cave’s “New Morning” and Elvis Presley’s arrangement of “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” A seven-minute, untitled, instrumental “hidden” track was added to the end of the EP.
MMJ held a hometown concert at Headliners in Lousiville on December 21, 2001. Earlier in the day, frontman Jim James and his band mates at the time (all of whom have since left the band) recorded a session for Lousiville radio station WFPK 91.9 FM.
The session aired on Christmas Day 2001 and featured My Morning Jacket performing several holiday classics.
“I’ve always had nothing but good memories of Christmas,” James said during an interview break. “There’s something so magical about it. The feeling in the air, it’s just is amazing.”
In addition to the aforementioned “Xmas Curtain,” “Xmas Time Is Here Again” and “Santa Claus Is Back In Town,” the special set saw takes on “O Holy Night” and “Silent Night” and the MMJ originals “Old Set Blues,” “I Will Sing You Songs” and “Come Closer.”
Grace Potter | Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Actin’ Nice)
In 2011, Grace Potter provided the voice of Carol in Disney’s animated holiday movie Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice, which aired on ABC. Potter wrote the song “Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Actin’ Nice)” that was recorded by the singer-songwriter for the special’s soundtrack.
Here’s Grace discussing her role in the movie and soundtrack:
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals later issued a recording of Charles Brown’s holiday blues favorite, “Please Come Home For Christmas.” The currently disbanded group backed the single with Potter’s “Naughty Naughty Children (Better Start Actin’ Nice).”
Khruangbin | Christmas Time Is Here
Last year, Khruangbin shared a cover of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The beloved song was written by Vince Guaraldi for the 1958 animated television special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The 1965 soundtrack album credited to the Vince Guaraldi Trio presented an instrumental version of “Christmas Time Is Here” as well as a vocal version featuring the choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church located in San Rafael, California.
“Growing up the three of us all had very different Christmases,” Khruangbin bassist Laura Lee stated. “But we recently discovered we all had the exact same favorite Christmas song. When we realized it, we sat down to play it and it came together instantly. In 15 minutes we had this recorded. It was like the best Christmas present ever.”
The Texas-based trio that also includes guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson also recorded a “version Mary” edition of Guaraldi’s classic. The band shared a video for their cover that was directed by Nathan David Smith and featured artwork by Fuzzytown.
Vulfpeck | Christmas In L.A.
In 2014, Vulfpeck included an instrumental original track entitled “Christmas In L.A.” on their EP Fugue State. When the Michigan-based band released their 2015 full-length album, Thrill Of The Arts, an updated version “Christmas In L.A.” — this time featuing lyrics sung by Theo Katzmann — was part of the LP’s tracklist.
Renowned session guitarist David T. Walker and pianist Charles Jones appeared on the album track. In Decemeber 2015, Vulfpeck’s Jack Stratton posted a message purporting to explain “the story behind ‘Christmas In L.A.’” The (since-deleted) note read:
The ‘Santa Clause’ Loophole
Earlier this year I was denied Israeli citizenship.
My maternal bloodline wasn’t Jewish. Apparently my dad wasn’t Jewish either. He had misheard an uncle at a young age.
The crisis was consuming all my mental real estate. I confided in a friend. He recommended a good lawyer.
“You’re a songwriter?” the lawyer asked.
“Are you notable? You write using traditional song structure? You know, verse, chorus type stuff?”
The lawyer looked up over his glasses. “I have good news. Hidden in the citizenship legislation there’s a loophole. It’s referred to as the ‘Santa Clause’; it states that if you pen a Top 40 Christmas song, you’ll be granted immediate Israeli citizenship. It’s considered the purest act of Judaism in the modern world. Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Mel Tormé (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), Johnny Marks (“Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) … These are great Jews!”
The lawyer wished me luck and handed me David T. Walker’s phone number.
In 2017, Vulfpeck recruited musicians from around the world to record a collaborative version of “Christmas In L.A.” (see video above).
Twiddle | Carol Of The Bells
In December 2012, Twiddle dropped an instrumental version of the holiday classic “Carol Of The Bells” within a cover of Mason Williams’ instrumental “Classical Gas.” Williams released “Classical Gas” in 1968 and re-recorded it in 1987 with well-known New Age holiday music group Mannheim Steamroller.
Twiddle pulled a similar segue a couple more times in December 2013. The same instrumental sandwich was served again in December 2014 when Twiddle performed at Kung Fu’s 4th Annual Toys For Tots Holiday Spectacular.
Twiddle switched it up during a Brooklyn Bowl show in December 2015. Artificial snow fell from the ceiling of the New York City venue while Twiddle their original “Lost in the Cold,” during which they dropped into “Carol Of The Bells” (watch it snow at 3:47:30 in the video above).
“Classical Gas” was again utilized in December 2016 as an avenue to “Carol Of The Bells” during Twiddle’s concert at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York. Most recently, “Carol Of The Bells” sprung out of a second set “Subconscious Prelude” at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club in December 2018.
Nicki Bluhm | Buon Natale
Released weeks ago, singer-songwriter Nicki Bluhm‘s original Christmas song, “Buon Natale,” is the newest on the list. The track is part of Bluhm’s limited-edition EP comprised of original and traditional holiday music.
Bluhm, who resides in Nashville, recorded “Buon Natale” at Ken Coomer’s Cartoon Moon Recording Studio in East Nashville with engineer/producer Jesse Noah Wilson. Born Nicki Fraioli, Bluhm co-wrote “Buon Natale” with A.J. Croce. Bluhm revealed:
I asked A.J. if he wanted to try and write a Christmas song, and we both agreed that a loungy Dean Martin vibe was the direction we’d like to go in. We’re also both Italian so I thought it would be sweet to write about Christmas in Italy. A.J. and I had the great pleasure of traveling to Europe together this year to play music and discovered our mutual love of travel and experiencing other cultures so it felt natural to honor the place that our families both came from. To me, the spirit of the holidays begins with a song. Growing up, what made my family unit strong was having shared traditions. During the holidays we always listened to the same Christmas albums and to this day I still listen to those records and they always bring me home, no matter where I am.
Bluhm’s vocals are accompanied by Croce on piano, Wilson on electric bass and Mellotron, Leroy Powell on vocals and guitar and Richard Millsap on acoustic guitar.
moe. | Seasons Greetings From moe.
On Halloween (yep, Halloween) in 2002, moe. dropped their lone holiday album, Seasons Greetings From moe., containing 10 tracks such as “Jingle Bells,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” “Carol Of The Bells” and “Blue Christmas.”
OK, here’s the deal. Recently, we were going out to do a short group of shows. Early on, Rob [Derhak] (who is a complete Christmasaholic) came up with the idea to record a Holiday album. We had just finished with mixing and mastering a studio album that was set to be released in about five months, yet here we were talking about making ANOTHER recording that had to be ready in one-fifth the time.
So all sudden-like, we were in backstage rooms across the midwest, listening to Christmas albums IN SEPTEMBER to “get in the mood”. (It’s not even HALLOWEEN yet!!!) We adopted a commando style of learning songs, arranging and recording live during our soundchecks — sometimes three songs a day! This was definitely a fun thing to do, yet also a little surreal considering the fact that I refuse to let go of summer at this time. This recording exists primarily because Rob IS “Robbie Christmas” and he infected us all with his “sickness” early in the year!”
In addition to Christmas classics, Season’s Greetings includes moe.’s takes on “Linus & Lucy,” “We’re A Couple Of Misfits,” “Oh Hanukkah” and originals “Together At Christmas” and “Home.” When performing around the end-of-the-year holidays, moe. has been known to drop in some of the songs from the album during their shows.
[Ed. Note: Choosing a single song proved too difficult a task, so we’re leaving it up to you to pick one — though we’d probably go with “We’re A Couple Of Misfits” … or “Oh Hanukkah” … see what we mean?]
Leslie Mendelson | Happy New Year
It seems only fitting to wrap this festive list with a song entitled “Happy New Year.” The final song is also the final original song making the list.
“Hi! I have a new single out today called “Happy New Year,” singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson wrote late last year. “It’s a little song I recorded on piano this summer (always a good time to record a holiday song). I hope you enjoy it!”