Almost Christmas Tour|
Jars Of Clay, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
12/9/11, at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA
This year has been a season of reflection for Jars of Clay. Their previous tour--The Sing & Tell Tour--found the guys looking back over their memorable career and playing fan favorites and lesser-knowns while sharing stories about how some songs came to be and how others have affected listeners as well as themselves. The Almost Christmas Tour picks up where Sing & Tell left off, even carrying over portions of the same format, and includes new and familiar holiday songs to create one wonderful night of live music.
The previous Jars of Clay Christmas tour that I'd attended was their Love Came Down - A Christmas Pageant Tour in 2008. It was their second Christmas tour (in 2007, they toured with Third Day), but their first headlining one. It was an incredible experience as they brought along other talents that included Leeland, Sara Groves and Sixpence None the Richer. Each artist did their own thing while also teaming up with each other at different times. It was excellently executed and a lovely seasonal event. The Almost Christmas Tour strips things back a few layers. Not only are there just two acts on this tour instead of four, but Jars takes a much more acoustical approach to their songs this time around. And in some smaller venues, the whole setup just feels all the more personal and intimate.
The intimate feel was only strengthened by a pre-show "Meet & Greet" session with the band. VIP ticket holders, depending on how much they spent, received several different perks in addition to this Meet & Greet event. However, it wasn't your typical 'walk up, say "Hi," get something signed and walk away' kind of thing. Instead, VIPs chose a seat within the first four rows of the Lancaster Bible College chapel sanctuary and then waited until the guys walked out and stood up front to take questions. Drew and Ellie Holcomb from opening act Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors also joined the four Jars guys and took questions from a few fans in the audience. Topics that Jars covered were things like the story behind the song "Worlds Apart," the unexpected success of the song "Flood," Blood:Water Mission, their Redemption Songs project, the vision for the Live at Gray Matters digital EPs, the members' most personally meaningful Jars songs, and what the future holds (including plans for the next all-new Jars of Clay record being for a 2013 release). After they were done answering questions, the artists exited (no autographs or individual meets took place) and there was about an hour before the show started. In this waiting time, the doors were opened to regular ticket holders who were then able to come claim general admission seating before the show began.
Indie act Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors kicked off the evening's performances around 8:00pm. Because there were only two acts playing tonight, the Holcombs received a near hour-long set with a total of ten songs played. With three "neighbors" supporting them, Drew and Ellie Holcomb opened with "Baby Tomorrow" from their latest project, Chasing Someday, and followed it with the romantic "Someday," which featured Ellie sashaying over to Drew and his microphone for the two to sing along together. Their stage presence together all night was cute and romantic, something you seldom see between married performers like that. Drew's stage presence is considerably more dry and stoic, however, seeming a little more like the rustic John Mark McMillan. However, he has the charm and neverending beaming smile of his lovely wife Ellie to balance that out as she tends to bring him to life more. Before the next song, Matt and Steve from Jars came out, delivered some Starbucks coffee to a couple of the members on stage and quickly retreated. Drew took that moment to express his appreciation for the hospitality of the Jars of Clay boys. He then introduced the next song as a brand new one off their upcoming project, titled "Another Man's Shoes." It was a good song that fit nicely into their folk rock style. Their music reminded me more of the NEEDTOBREATHE style with less of a pop edge and more of an Americana flavor (musically, not vocally). After the new song, Drew introduced the Christmas music portion of their set and began playing "White Christmas." At one point, the band jumped into a musical interlude and Drew made his way over to Ellie as the two joined hands and began dancing and swaying to the music. It was a sweet moment and something I have to say I've never seen happen on a concert stage before. Drew followed the song by introducing the next as being a taste of their hometown of Memphis, and performed a very soulful and infectious version of "Merry Christmas Baby." The husband and wife team then performed the holiday duet favorite "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (although the lyrics felt a little strange in a church setting, I must admit), and then they performed a unique acoustic take on "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" after Drew introduced it as his favorite Christmas song and one they decided to take liberties with when it came to its arrangement. Drew then turned the mic over to Ellie for her to perform one of her own solo songs from her own solo album, "The Valley." It was a pretty song and it made me curious as to what the rest of her solo stuff might sound like. After that, they played "Live Forever," and after Drew expressed his thanks to the audience--adding in that he really enjoyed playing in a church for a change (to which Ellie interjected that he really means it)--they closed with "Fire and Dynamite."
A set change and intermission followed, which felt a little long, but wasn't too unbearable. Before long, Jars of Clay emerged to the recording of their Christmas Songs album intro, "The Gift Of St. Cecilia," before then opening in full with "Wonderful Christmas Time." While many artists have done pretty solid covers of this song in the past (including Earthsuit, PFR and Family Force 5), Jars' version is by far my favorite and their live version does not disappoint. It was a great way to lead off the night. With a large Christmas tree sitting center stage and festive lighting all around, it very much felt like a holiday show. "Love Came Down At Christmas" then followed, keeping the festive Christmas mood alive, and then vocalist Dan Haseltine encouraged the audience to cuddle up for their love song, "Hibernation Day." While Christine Dente had sung on the album version and Leigh Nash had previously sung on the 2008 tour version, Ellie Holcomb came back out on stage to sing the female part with Dan for a nice added touch. For several of the songs throughout the night, a couple of the Neighbors from Drew's band supported Jars with bass and drums. They performed on the first two songs, but then stepped out for "Hibernation Day" and much of the rest of the set. After the Christmas duet, Dan announced that they would stay with the romantic theme and played "another love song" in "Closer," performing it acoustically as just the four of them. Like the Sing & Tell tour, Dan kept a single snare drum and cymbal in front of him with a couple different percussion instruments and a digital bass drum pad that he later kicked off a shoe for to perform by stomping on it. It was a nice way to keep things acoustic while adding a few more layers to the soundscape of their songs. Performing "Liquid" acoustically next generated some enthusiastic hoots and hollers, and then "Work" followed close behind (for which Dan first implemented the bass drum pad). Haseltine paused afterwards to tell the story he told on the Sing & Tell tour of the woman who'd shared her story about the song "Scarlet" while they were performing on the Rock N Worship Roadshow Tour. It's a moving story and it certainly adds weight to the song, which they then played acoustically as well. Dan then took a seat on a stool and began to share his thoughts on the Christmas music he grew up with, particularly his love for the John Denver Christmas records--especially the one with the Muppets. "Christmas For Cowboys" followed and then they introduced their brand new Christmas original, "Almost Christmas," which appears on their new 3-song Christmas EP, More Christmas Songs (of which they joked about the simplicity of the song title). Again, like on the Sing & Tell Tour, Dan talked about Jars' pension for "realistic" love songs and shared more in-depth about his high school prom misadventures that had been brought on by Bryan Adams' "Heaven." Going into greater detail about the story made it even more funny--albeit sad--and it made for a great segue into "Mirrors & Smoke" (for which pianist Charlie Lowell provided the accordion).
Dan and guitarist Steve Mason introduced the next song as being one they wrote on a sunny day and performed "Flood," and then followed it with a word about the organization the band started some years ago, Blood:Water Mission. Dan shared about what BWM has been doing and how they discovered that something the organization seems to always be in need of is concrete and so their latest BWM campaign is to raise money for buying bags of concrete to use for building clean water wells and other necessities in Africa. The drum and bass support returned then for the profound "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day" and then left again for "Someday At Christmas." Drew and Ellie briefly joined the guys on stage for this one, and then left again for the drums and bass to return for "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," which was the last of the new recordings on their new 3-song EP. To close, the four Jars, with the help of the two Neighbors (John and Rich), performed "Little Drummer Boy. It was a solid finish that brought the audience to their feet to cheer the guys on for an encore. After leaving the audience hanging for a bit, the guys came back, admitting they weren't exactly sure what to play next. A jumbled mess of shouts erupted from the audience and Mason replied "Got it!" and began strumming the opening chords to "Worlds Apart." It was a nice surprise set addition, which they followed as planned with their cover of Julie Miller's "All My Tears" to close. It's a song they've come to play at nearly every show now, and almost always close with it; although it's not one of my favorites, the lyrical longing for peace after death will never stop being relevant and poignant.
The Almost Christmas Tour was an excellent night of regular and holiday music from two excellent bands. While I'd only heard-of, but had never actually heard Drew Holcomb's band, I was sorry I hadn't checked them out sooner. They're a terrific bunch of musicians who are well worth checking out if you need something fresh to listen to. Pairing them with Jars was also a nice touch, even if the grand team-up of Leeland, Sixpence and Groves was missed a bit. With more Sing & Tell style performances planned for early 2012, it's an excellent tour for Jars fans not to miss, while those unfamiliar with Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors may want to look them up now while they're still flying under the radar.
-- John DiBiase, 12/10/11