Gulf Coast Records pays tribute to the holidays on A Gulf Coast Christmas, a compilation from a different kind of stable than we usually think about this time of year. The generous 16 song collection, including two from label founder Mike Zito, has a mix of originals and winter classics, all of it with a throwback sound that’ll make you feel like you’re in a blues-based holiday film.
But first, my Scrooge moment. Holiday compilations are complex. On the one hand, compilation albums are fun ways to discover new artists, and when the collections are arranged thematically, it’s even more enjoyable, since you feel like you’re listening to a whole record, and not a random assortment of songs no one thought were good enough to include on their own albums. But a holiday theme puts an expiration date on a collection for most people, since it’s something you’re only going to play a month or so out of the year. The flip side of that concern, which came to me after a bad night’s sleep, when three different ghosts visited me, is that there aren’t a ton of blues-focused Christmas albums. Not everything needs to be pragmatic, so why not enjoy a fun one for a few weeks and save it for subsequent years?
Because this album has some joyful moments and it’s easy to see how it will become part of your holiday tradition. Zito kicks the album off with “All I Got for Christmas is the Blues.” While I was initially disappointed this wasn’t a blues cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the raw slide of this slow blues helped to dry the tears. But then they returned, because Zito gives a heart-breaking vocal performance, digging deep into sadness in an expected way. He’s treating the song seriously, even though it’s a holiday cut.
Of course, the album has plenty of fun, lighter moments. The Proven Ones, an underrated blues super group, contribute a rockabilly version of “Blue Christmas.” It’s hard not to compare it to Elvis Presley’s iconic version, but the band stakes out a claim that’s equal parts blues and country. Singer Miss Molly and singer/guitarist Mark May team up for “Bluest Christmas,” reminiscent of Elmore James’ “It Hurts Me Too.” Like Zito, Molly and May tap into a holiday-themed desperation that might make you spin this year-round. And John “Blues” Boyd, Lisa Andersen, and Kid Andersen team up for “Merry Christmas Baby,” which reworks Otis Reddings’ version into a cross between “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and a piano-based slow blues. Lisa Anderson charms you with a performance that’s a hot chocolate and marshmallow-like swirl of singing and speaking, making you feel like she’s keeping you company beneath the tree.
I might be a fringe case, but as a Jewish person who loves Christmas but doesn’t love holiday music, this feels like an amazing compromise. My family celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, so this is going into the rotation. While it won’t replace the non-bluesy Christmas classics, it’s a nice change of pace. In fact, I hope someone makes a blues albums of Hanukkah-themed songs. If we’ve learned one thing from “Puppy for Hanukkah” this season, it’s that there’s a lot of opportunity in the genre. A Gulf Coast Christmas solves a problem I didn’t know I had. I tried to imagine what my life would be like had no one made this album and to be perfectly honest, it’s pretty similar but a little less fun. Plus, that jerk Mr. Potter was running my town.
The Review: 8.5/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Merry Christmas Baby
– Ring the Bells
– All I Got for Christmas is the Blues
– Bluest Christmas
– Blue Christmas
The Big Hit
– Blue Christmas
Review by Steven Ovadia