Sons of Bill Make Christmas Mecca of Charlottesville With an Exploding Annual Celebration
Sharp blue streaks of light define the stage’s interior in stark relief against the darkened stage where the Sons of Bill wield their instruments to bless their hometown of Charlottesville, VA, with a year’s end finale of rich celebration. For six years now, these sons of Charlottesville have returned home from national and increasingly international tours to see family and friends and to present their annual Christmas Party and Concert at the historic Jefferson Theatre on the downtown mall. An occasion hard to find anywhere, the Sons have made the show an annual tradition that has grown in attendance, scope, and grandeur.
Sold out each year now, the show (held on Dec. 23 this season) features the Sons of Bill, which, as almost any Charlottesville resident will tell you, includes three sons of University of Virginia (UVA) Professor Emeritus of Theology and Southern Literature Bill Wilson and UVA Chair of Dermatology Barbara (Barb) Braunstein Wilson. Bill is a singer/songwriter in his own rite, and he and Barb instilled a passion for music in their children from an early age.
The Sons, as Bill calls them (with the capital S), didn’t grow up with records and TV but instead heard their mom and dad sing to them along with dad’s guitar playing. In Edinburgh, Scotland’s Herald, James Wilson remembers: Looking back now, there was a lot of Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, the Louvins. Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard and the like in his repertoire, but, to us, they were just Dad’s songs. So although I had no idea who Lead Belly was when I was growing up, I knew all of the words to “Goodnight Irene,” while most of my friends were listening to Sir Mix-A-Lot.
Then, about ten years ago brothers James and Abe took their guitars to an open mic in Charlottesville. On impulse, the brothers introduced themselves as “the sons of Bill,” which, of course, they are. Soon thereafter, the brothers used the impromptu branding from that open mic night, contacted brother Sam, then working jazz gigs in Manhattan, and long-time friends Seth Green and Todd Wellons, and formed the band Sons of Bill.
The band is getting noticed. They were a featured act to watch in Rolling Stone, had a streaming video on Garden and Gun on-line, and recently returned from their second European tour (Spain, England, Scotland, etc.) in a row, this time touring with Ryan Bingham. In the summer, Sons of Bill played both Nashville’s Americana Music Festival and Austin City Limits Music Festival. A multi-talented family, much has changed for the Sons. Although Abe still does architectural drawings on long tour rides, James, however, hasn’t found time to teach his popular workshop on the literature of William Faulkner.
In the Christmas show, the Sons also showcase a variety of talented artists from the Charlottesville area and as far away as Raleigh, NC, and Nashville, Some repeat, but an effort is made to change-up the talent each year, from the quiet Kit Carsons duo a couple of years ago to the raucous (and richly talented) Moby Davis, of Moby and the Dicks, at this year’s show (and before). The line-up is ably completed with other members of the Wilson family: Bill, the band’s namesake, on guitar and vocals, son Luke singing, and daughter Julia also on vocals.
The Sons of Bill themselves are: James Wilson, vocals/guitar; Abe Wilson, keyboards/vocals, and Sam Wilson, vocals/guitar/pedal steel guitar. All three write songs. Rounding out the band are Seth on bass and Todd on drums. The Wilson family also includes another daughter, Claire, who has a lovely voice but who, like her mother Barb, avoids the stage. At this year’s concert, Todd’s father, Bill Wellons played keyboards (he’s also a drummer) and sang. There is never a weak link in this secular but respectful salute to the Christmas occasion.
Related news flash: The sons are working on a new album!, the follow-up to their break-through, innovative, and beautiful Love and Logic from late 2014. Now that the Christmas show is in the history books, they will focus the next couple of months or so on the album, writing, demos, and the like, with a few major gigs here and there.
“The hardest working band in America,” as tagged by one of their guest musicians, doesn’t take Christmas off. Once off the road from their Fall tour, they start planning this event and inviting other musicians to join them. Audiences come largely from Charlottesville, but devotees like my wife and myself come in each year from elsewhere. My wife and I drive there from Norfolk, VA, a good three-hours drive away, and an English family – father, mother, and young son – fly in from England each December.
That family follows the band on the European tours as well. At the Christmas show, if you watch the wife, you see she sings along and knows every word to every song. If you watch the father (both parents appear perhaps in their thirties), you may find him wearing his personalized, one-of-a-kind letter jacket embroidered with the words Sons of Bill/European Tour/2013.
The weather for the event has varied dramatically. The first year we went, the weather was wintry, with ear muffs and gloves in order and a Christmas-y feel in the air, while this year temperatures reached the seventies, and some audience members showed up in shorts and t-shirts.
I asked Bill how the holiday shows got started: When the boys started to get big and management didn’t want them to be considered a “local band,” they decided to have an annual show that everyone could anticipate and plan on attending. Making it a celebration of the amazing musical talent in Charlottesville was immediately agreed upon as well as donating to a local charity. – The charity became Loaves and Fishes at Christ Church, which provides food assistance to families in need and to which a portion of each year’s proceeds are donated.-
There have been no big name guests. The boys want to feature those outstanding artists who deserve more light. This is their favorite show of the year, and they play for old friends, family, and local fans. But I must say that every year, fans from all over the US, and a super fan family from England come for the show. Finally, my old guitar playing buddy from my growing up years, Dr. Steve Felger and family, came up from Jacksonville, Florida to see the Sons.
The band has been inexistence for nine years. We first saw them early-on in Norfolk. These “hometown heroes,” so-called by one of their guest players, have surprises on tap for each year’s show. Two years ago, the show ended with most of the musicians returning to the stage to perform The Pogues’ raucous, cynical Christmas send-off/anthem, Fairytale of New York. I have a vivid memory of Abe Wilson dancing across the floor in exuberant abandon with a female performer during the Pogues’ balls-out and dark, yet celebratory ode. It might be worth mentioning here that another aspect of the Sons’ work touches on issues of faith and theology, their father’s academic areas, in songs such as James’ River of Jordan and Metaphysical Gingham Gown.
Some guests present Sons of Bill songs at the concert, either with the Sons or solo. Other performers present their own work and/or covers of other bands’ music, again on their own or with the Sons of Bill. As huge a fan of the SOBs as I am, I most enjoy the shows that best have a good mix of their work and that of their guest artists.
Some favorite concert moments of mine have been performances by different guest artists each year of James’ Charleston, an ironic ballad rich in brooding, romantic imagination. Whit Wright of Raleigh’s American Aquarium was one of the recent vocalists to interpret it. (I’m going down to Charleston, get drunk on the battery, cruise up and down Main Street, and find myself a queen.) The shows have gotten tighter and better production-wise each year, but I hope they never lose the spontaneity and originality of the looser, wilder moments.
A lot college-age and twenty-somethings attend, not surprising given that the University of Virginia is literally next door. However, there is a wide range of ages represented, including Seth’s 92-years old grandmother Myra (who doesn’t miss a show) and the Sons’ grandma Barbara, age 90, who attended several years ago but had “other commitments” (!) this year.
One fan, Kristen Finn, described the evening in Facebook like this: The energy, love, and community that filled the Jefferson last night was overwhelming. What a great way to kick-off the holiday. That was the good part. The downside was the surprising amount of loud talking going on in portions of the largely standing crowd, seemingly oblivious that they were presumably there for the music and the camaraderie and joy that it brings of its own accord.
Family song choices ranged from a powerfully lovely rendition of Gram Parsons’ In My Hour of Darkness, Barb’s suggestion, by Bill, accompanying himself on one of his beloved Gallagher Guitars (also favored by Doc Watson), with harmonies by James, to daughter/sister Julia’s booming, exuberant rendition, joined by guest Marie Landragin, of a Megadeath tune. This last song occasioned enthusiastic and boisterous audience participation by the younger crowd. Guest artist Andy Thacker joined in on mandolin.
Another sisterly highlight was when Julia, a UVA Classics major and an MFA student at Savannah College of Art and Design, joined Sam in his beautiful Road to Caanan, written with and for his wife about their separation while she was teaching in Iraq. Family members were pressed into other action as well. Bill worked lights during that afternoon’s rehearsal and was later “on duty.” Barb never lags as the band’s energetic and radiant cheerleader.
Bill may have an album of his own in the works before long, if “the boys” are ever home long enough. He told me, The boys talk a lot about me doing a solo show (with their back up), but so far they are too busy to organize it. We talk about a solo album, but the progress on that is slow too. They (the Sons) stay constantly on the go even when home. If he does record it, I’ll be among the first in line to get one. Bill has a fine voice and plays like a man who began playing guitar in his teens, as Bill did on a Martin D28, which he, amazingly, didn’t like and sold in favor of his first Gallagher.
It’s not unusual that James, who acts as emcee, often mentions having more or less grown up with guest artists such as David Wax and Moby Brown. Once, he brought to the stage a young vocalist with a lovely voice who’d shared housing with him in Nashville, where he spends part of his year when he can. Guest artists clearly love the opportunity to perform with the band. Peyton Trachterman described in Facebook how “stoked to play with them” he was and posted some fine harmonizing he did with band members backstage while waiting in the green room to go on.
Barb describes the holiday gatherings this way: The Christmas show is very special to me because my boys love it so much! It is a chance to see most of my family on stage having the time of their lives. It is a time when family and friends come together to celebrate the band and the season. It makes me so proud!
The lights are beautifully done, especially this year, as I thought the lights became more deeply intrinsic to the esthetic of the Christmas show’s musical and theatrical core, with imaginative tableaus of color, shapes, and dazzle. Integral too to the shows is the element of surprise, from the shredding guitar battles of Sam and other electric guitar monsters to the contributions of the afore-mentioned Moby Brown. Brown brought to his version of The Fine Young Cannibals’ She Drives Me Crazy a rich, sky-high falsetto followed by his blustery, edgy baritone verging on bass, all the while roaming the stage and interacting with the other musicians and the audience. Two years before, James quickly left the stage after introducing Brown, saying,” it’s about to get crazy and I’m going for a drink!”
Newly married, youngest brother Luke, who has his own popular bluegrass band, Gallatin Canyon, contributes vocals each year, ranging from knock-out fifties-style torch songs the past couple of years to a range of sometimes challenging songs this year.
Everyone seems to know who the Wilsons are. Checking into our hotel this year, near the theatre at the end of the historic mall, the bellhop said their staff had seen the Wilson parents “around” earlier in the day, and, at the show, Bill’s current and former students encircle him.
Our first year going to the Christmas shows, I’d read about the performance coming up, including the fact that the David Wax Museum, another favorite of mine, would be joining the SOBs. By that time, I knew that we would be in Charlottesville visiting an old friend of Gayle’s (and mine) who was attending a Buddhist retreat in the mountains there. I found that the show was sold out, but I became obsessed with going. I tried a number of things (Craig’s List, Facebook) without luck. But then … I’d known about Bill’s teaching role and managed to track him down through UVA listings. Rather unbelievably, he responded to my impassioned e-mail plea for tickets to purchase and said he’d do what he could. Sam then called him later that day, saying a few tickets had shaken loose, and Bill told him to hold three for us at the box office. Amazing!
Bill and I have stayed in touch ever since then, and Gayle and I get to visit with Bill and Barb at the shows we’re able to make it to, which is many of the Sons’ Virginia shows. We’ve also gotten to know drummer Todd’s aunt, who teaches in the same school system with me, and Seth’s father’s law partner, whose wife exhibits her art work at the museum where my wife is curator.
As I march resignedly into my older years, and the glue that holds my heart to dear Christmases, wanes at times, the Sons of Bill’s annual musical send-off to the season brings a holiday message of joy and hope, however secular the vehicle. It gives me buoyancy while looking forward to each year’s gathering of the faithful.