The Wilson Brothers Bring Christmas Back to the Blue Ridge, Rocking into the Wee Hours!
The Band: Sons of Bill, consisting of the Wilson brothers, James (guitar), Sam (guitar), and Abe (keyboards), Joe Dickey (bass), and Todd Wellons (drums)
The Guests: Seth Green (founding Sons of Bill bass player), Caroline Spence, and Guests 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, & others on guitars and vocals
The Family: Bill (guitar & vocals), Barb, Julia, and Luke Wilson (all on vocals), and Todd Wellons’ dad, Bill Wellons (keyboard and vocals)
Bang! Pow! That’s how it hits you,
The annual Sons of Bill and Friends Christmas Party is held each year at the Jefferson Theater on the historic downtown mall in Charlottesville, VA. It is a joyous entry into the Christmas period for the spiritual and the secular music fan alike. The SOBs were named one of Rolling Stone’s Top 20 Attractions at this year’s huge, talent-heavy Americana Music Festival in Nashville, along with veteran groups like Over the Rhine. With multiple national and European tours under their belts, they are also local favorites and sell-out their Christmas shows each year.
2016 Edition SOB Bash
Just before Christmas, my wife Gayle (Paul) and I made our fourth trip from coastal Norfolk, VA, to the Blue Ridge Mountains to see the show. Outdoing us, others come from across the country, and one intrepid family comes from as far away as London, England, to attend this festive, sometimes riotous event each year. This year’s concert was among the best and featured a first-ever pre-show VIP concert/party.
I was afraid I’d miss the early show since my wife had to work all day before driving. So, I took an ambitious early bus/train/bus combination, and we met at the theater once she arrived. For seasonal rates, we were able to stay at the Omni, a luxury hotel steps away from the venue.
On arrival at the Jefferson, they draped us in cool, souvenir lanyard passes. A Pre-Party crowd gathered on the theater’s two levels, ages ranging from teen to advanced, with a few kids. I made my way over to say “hello” to the Wilson parents, Bill (as in Sons of) and Barb (Barbara Braunstein Wilson), both of them distinguished professionals in their own right. That’s in addition to parenting six highly talented, intelligent, and musically out-of-sight kids, four boys and two girls. All Wilsons, less one daughter, Claire (also talented, but who avoids the stage) performed at this year’s concert and/or pre-show.
The Wilson progeny grew up with Sunday, family jams, which continue to this day, and no TV. Most of them have emulated Dad in becoming musical performers. In addition, Dad is Professor Emeritus in Theology and Southern Literature at nearby University of Virginia. Mom, also with Doctorate, is an Associate Professor at UVA and Interim Dean of the Department of Dermatology. Three Wilson sons, James, Abe, and Sam are in Sons of Bill, along with two other band members, drummer Todd Wellons and new bass player, Joe Dickey.
Most people in the Charlottesville area know the family in one way or another. On our trips, everyone I’ve spoken to has heard of or knows the family. As example, Freddy Cougar, the cabbie with the great name who picked me up at the Amtrak station, had never heard the band but knew the Wilson family as customers at several pet stores he owned in a previous lifetime.
The Pre-Party gave me an opportunity to give Bill and Barb a book I’d made for them and the family, featuring photos I’d taken and excerpts of text I’d written about them.
I was happy to do so, as I’ve been seduced by the band’s innovative, deeply probing lyrics and their lovely, at times hot twists and turns of melody,. Too, I admire the family, particularly the matriarch and the patriarch and their accomplishments as professionals and parents.
Let the Songs Begin
I then moved to stage-side, where the band had just begun playing and Gayle later joined me. I’ve said the Bills are innovative. Who else pulls-off a song about the arcane-sounding Brand New Paradigm (Abe’s lyrics) , and, indeed, has a whole room rocking out on it, as the audience did that night. Or, what other band can boast a song titled Metaphysical Gingham Gown, James’ lyrics on this one.
And, finally, how many groups turn a dark, ironically twisted-back-into-itself song about a serial arsonist into an anthem. Yet, Santa Ana Winds, brings hundreds of people to their feet deliriously singing along, me included. Guest #1, a burly, red-haired dynamo of a vocalist, joined them on this one and ranged the stage left to right, inciting the audience and often hugging – with a manly nuzzle to the neck – his musical brethren.
Great Writers Abound
This song, too, is by Abe, an architect by training, who has, perhaps, the darkest, at times, but often also the most complex, elevated, and spiritual of their songs, or anyone’s for that matter.
James is a fine writer too, and I hope the band never forgets that! He has some juicy feats of narrative excellence worthy of a young man who’s taught a class in Bill Faulkner. The middle-aged Wilson brother and charismatic band leader is a Southern lyricist who evokes earthy romance, mystery, and proletarian truth.
His wisdom runs deep, evident in the following passage, James’ section (James Wilson, of Sons of Bill), from Leonard Cohen: In Tribute in the new issue (Jan.-Feb.) of American Songwriter. “His songs have an abstracted quality that is almost pathological: Ageless. Placeless. They are like little hymns with no church, stories riddled with minute details and particularities that still somehow always manage to be more bewildering than grounding. I don’t know of anyone that loves them that wouldn’t describe themselves as haunted by them.” Yes, James!
His songs this night included the more recent Bad Dancer, his classic Joey’s Arm (with its star and bars and “Born to Lose”), and the night’s concluding song, Virginia Calling, which brought everyone back on stage to join in, along with a loud audience sing-along. Most of the sold-out crowd was still standing tall at midnight, an hour after the show’s projected close.
Brother, Sam, too, has at least one self-written, knocked-out-of-the-park ballad entitled Road to Canaan, sung this night with James’ Nashville roommate, the sweet-voiced Caroline Spence, a recording artist in her own rite. The lighting crew always does a good job as well on these shows. Bright, green lightning strikes illuminated the duo in ever lengthening lines of beauty parting the dark stage.
Havin’ a Good Time
James’ smiles were infectious, as were Sam’s nodding smiles while pointing to friends in the crowd. The lads were clearly having a good time being back home before an adoring home crowd.
“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,” Bill once told me. “Making it a celebration of the amazing musical talent in Charlottesville was immediately agreed upon,” he said, “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.
Barb shared with me this reflection on her sons’ acts of seasonal cheer, “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!” And, the family was proud of her, too, this year, taking the stage like a pro.
It’s Shredding Time Again!
Guest #2, a regular at these Xmas shows, has long, black hair and the look of a young, grunge gang-banger. He and Sam matched-up on raging lead guitars, at times hovered over by Guest #3, also a familiar presence in the holiday shows, a voodoo mama sort of vocalist raising her tasseled arms high over them.
At one point, drummer Todd Wellons left his drum kit for a bass guitar, playing duo on a tune with his talented dad, Bill Wellons, on keyboards. Then back at his accustomed high perch at the drum set, Todd brought collected fury to the drums, holding together at their rich core all the diverse musical explorations of the evening. Abe was a steady, pulse-sustaining, though more understated, presence at keyboards all evening as well.
Remembering the Season
The second set began with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I was glad to see it, as in other recent editions of the holiday event, there were fewer or no referent songs of the season. More of these seasonal songs in earlier years added to the overall Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza/etc. joie de vivre. I admired the stretch of earlier performers, such as The David Wax Museum, who’d brought in a great rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s I Am a Rock, I Am an Island, only through the song’s reference to “a winter’s day, in a deep and dark December.”
I was glad to see the variety of songs in general, as the preceding year’s show had been almost all SOB songs, as much as I love ‘em. A great example of that variety was a fun arrangement the band did of Such a Night, with former bass player Seth Green, singing lead, with Guest #4 playing trombone and harmonizing. Seth was a long-time friend of the Wilson brothers and founding member of the Sons who left the group after the birth of his son, now about one-year-old.
“It’s great to be back on a stage with these guys,” Seth said wistfully. He showed a whole new side of himself, as a crooner, while doing an awkward, though charming, soft-shoe of sorts, in a green suit, seeming to have put on a few pounds, and showcasing his balding pate.
Other songs that night included the moody, phenomenally supernatural Big Unknown and Lost in the Cosmos Again (Song for Chris Bell). Bell, dying at a young age, was lead singer of Big Star, a favorite band of the SOBs, which was recently celebrated in a highly-rated box-set of the short-lived, yet seminal band’s work.
Another Sons song that night was Rock and Roll, a raucous version led by Guest #5, another SOB-praiser and neck-nudger, an African American rocker who bounced and rocked his way across the stage and into audience hearts, a performer James said had played with him the world-over.
They also played another highlight of the evening, a cover of the Beatle George Harrison’s great While My Guitar Gently Weeps.
I noticed that they didn’t do any songs from their upcoming, new album. However, Sam confirmed it would be out in 2017, an effort produced in Seattle in recent months, which they’ve promised will be as good or better than their brilliant, break-through album Love and Logic.
Parents Bill and Barb took the stage during the Preconcert to sing Kris Kristofferson’s If You Could See Me Now, with Bill on guitar, a first for Barb on stage, though not at home. “Before there was a James or an Abe or a Sam or a Julia or a Claire, it was just Barb and I, like this,” Bill related.
As he started to play, the “boys” reminded him to plug in his amplified acoustic guitar, his favorite Gallaher, beloved by Doc Watson. “We didn’t have to “plug in” in my day,” Dad said. “Yes, you did,” Abe said, laughing “you just didn’t know it.” “Well, you know what they say,” Bill then said, “if you remember the sixties, you probably weren’t there.” When the laughter subsided, Bill began to play, only to stop again after James ran on and off stage behind him, making some kind of adjustment, to the accompaniment of the crowd laughing.
Bill finally began this lovely favorite, and .Barb debuted with a stretch of solo singing that wasn’t, as they say, “half-bad.” Later, I asked her if she and Bill had performed together, and she said, “no, only at home, but it sounded good that way, didn’t it!”
Little sister, Julia, joined the band during the main show, first in a duo with James, then joining the full band for a tune she forgot the words to mid-way through, much to James’ chagrin and Sam’s amusement. She gamely fa, la, la’ed her way until the lyric returned. James recalled that his “little sis” had toured with him once during a bad patch, when she helped him get through a period of depression.
The Kitcatts Return to Charlottesville
It was on that tour with his sister that James first met Mr. Kitcatt, of the afore-mentioned English family that now attends every Sons of Bill and Friends Christmas Party. The tall, curly-haired, boyish-looking Englishman with dark, horn-rim glasses, who had been in one or two bands in his younger days, was in the audience at James’ gig in New York City. This was an occasion that led to a night of bourbon shots and discussion of Dostoevsky into the wee hours, the beginning of an enduring relationship between the Kitcatt family and the SOB.
This has included the Kitcatts – mother and father, both lawyers, and young son, who know all the words to every song – touring with them throughout England, Spain, and Scotland. “It’s their Ancestral Home! (Scotland) you know,” the attractive, blond Mrs. Kitcatt, said, in her charming, thick English accent, chuckling. This has been in addition to their annual Christmas visits and other musical junkets to catch the Sons here in the U.S.
I noticed them that first wintry-frigid night four years ago, sitting near us in the balcony then moving below at their young son’s instigation. I’ve watched him grow up since them, a fine young boy I finally met this trip, on the concert floor, along with his mom and dad. Gayle and I bumped into them again in the parking garage of the Omni as we headed out at the same time the next day. They were headed to L.A. before heading back to their home on the outskirts of London.
The other Wilson brother, the talented, tall, blond, newly-married crooner/guitarist Luke, also appeared, singing several songs. Luke fronts a band of his own, Gallatin Canyon, which boasts a rich repertoire of bluegrass and Americana tunes, with Luke also now getting his toes wet with some original songs in collaboration with a bandmate.
Toward the end of the evening, father Bill returned, as he usually does, to finger-pick and sing, this time, Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You (“would you come with me”), joined in harmonies with son, Abe, on one side, leaving his keyboards in Todd’s dad’s capable hands, and Sam on the other.
After a couple of encores, Todd kindly brought me his set list at my request after he’d gathered some lists off the stage for a group of clamorous girls at stage side. Then, also generously, Abe signed the 2-page song sheet for me at the almost deserted, by then, merch table. I’m an old guy, but I still love this stuff.
The Sons and their friends had once again ushered in the Christmas holiday, pushing Christmas Eve in a rocking way, just out ahead of them, jamming hard and remembering with love this and other holidays of the moment, regardless of individual faiths and concerns, but respecting all celebrations of the spirit.
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. Thanks again, Bill and family, and, until next year, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”