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Christmas in the clubs
When you don't want to stay home for the holidays
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Credit:paul hoppe

When it came to Christmas music, Waylan Nate Palan used to be a Grinch.

"I was like, 'I hate Christmas music,'" says the Madison songster.

His Scrooge-like conversion came 11 years ago, when he worked at the Den, the now-demolished University Square convenience store. "A manager told me that he loved Christmas music because it pissed people off so much," Palan recalls. "I suddenly found the appeal of it."

Thus was planted the seed of Waylan St. Palan & the Magic Elves. Later, Palan encountered a compilation of jazz holiday music that included a version of "Silent Night" by an ensemble called the Tim Fuller Experience. "It was the cheesiest thing I'd ever heard, this Las Vegas style," he says. "I've been unable to find out anything else about Tim Fuller, but I said, 'I would love to see that band.' So I figured instead I would start that band."

Waylan St. Palan & the Magic Elves were born. Since 2000, Palan has regularly donned top hat and tails and led the six-piece band through arch, schmaltzy renditions of holiday songs, both familiar ("Away in a Manger") and obscure ("Here Comes Santa's Pussy," by Milwaukee rockers the Frogs).

This year the Magic Elves perform Dec. 14 at the Brink Lounge. They are a mustn't-miss holiday attraction, but in case you'll be tied up shopping that evening, don't worry. From now through Christmas, and even a little after Christmas, local stages will feature a bonanza of Yuletide entertainment.

For Waylan St. Palan & the Magic Elves, the concept is to exploit what Christmas has turned into: "an extremely commercial, glitzy, Las Vegas kind of holiday," Palan says. "We're trying to expose it for what it really is. We've created a band that performs Christmas music for people who hate Christmas music."

The glitziest element is Palan himself, who croons his oily way through the holiday repertoire. "The character I've always tried to portray is the fun uncle at Christmas who gets too drunk and says all the inappropriate stuff," he says. "It's a cross between that and Wayne Newton, which probably isn't a stretch."

Why does Palan think some people hate Christmas music? "It has to do with everything else about Christmas that people hate," he speculates. "It gets slammed down their throat earlier and earlier. It's a sacred holiday that everybody has fond memories of, and then they grow up and find out they've been lied to. Santa doesn't buy the presents. You have to."

The Magic Elves are just one of Palan's many musical projects, which include the irreverent cover band the Hometown Sweethearts, the Irish rock band the Kissers and his newest act, the soul group Marcus King & Thee Royalty. With his other groups, Palan keeps the Christmas songs to a minimum. "The Christmas band takes care of any other ambition I have to play holiday music," he says.

For another evening of holiday music by local rockers, look to the Brink Lounge on Dec. 20, when the power-pop ensemble Arena Venus performs an all-Christmas set. The group broke up in 2005, but its members are reuniting to play songs from Yuletide Swank, the band's 2004 Christmas release - and, in fact, its only full-length album.

The group's singer, Courtney Collins, loves Christmas. "There's something about it that brings out the child in people," she says.

With Yuletide Swank, Arena Venus eschewed the edgier sound of their earlier release, the EP Plucked, and instead recorded jazzy arrangements of mostly familiar tunes like "Sleigh Ride" and "Jingle Bells." Some of the tracks on Yuletide Swank have been heard widely, because they were featured in a holiday-themed video starring Chad Vader, the Madison-made YouTube sensation. Collins is the "Chad Vader" series' producer; her fiancé is series co-creator Aaron Yonda.

At the concert, says Collins, Arena Venus will bring a rockabilly sound to the Yuletide Swank tunes. They'll also perform Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and Chris Isaak's "Hey Santa" - as well as "I Believe in Father Christmas" by prog-rock specialists Emerson, Lake & Palmer. "We do a very minimalist version of that," says Collins.

On Dec. 22, the Brink Lounge will host a holiday performance by Piano Fondue, the raucous dueling-keyboard act of Chris Lange and Josh Dupont. "We have some of the funny stuff, like 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,'" says Lange, "and all the Christmas standards people like to hear. But we try to make them a little more funky and fun."

Still another Christmas-themed nightclub event will be hosted by Madison legends the Gomers. They regularly throw live karaoke parties at the High Noon Saloon, and they are billing their Dec. 7 "Gomeroke" event as Rock Star Santaoke. But Gomer Biff Blumfumgagnge is at something of a loss to describe it.

"There's a group of people who dress up like Santa that are having a party at the High Noon for that show," he says. "They're coming up to sing, and I guess we're expected to play Christmas carols."

The Gomers are astonishingly versatile musicians, and they doubtless will play the Christmas repertoire as smartly as they do, say, 1970s television theme songs. "I like screwing with them, kind of rocking out, twisting them a little," says Blumfumgagnge."

And for a taste of Christmas music that was composed right here in Madison, head to the High Noon Saloon Dec. 11 for a performance by Schabow & the Eggnogs. That's a side project of the Shabelles' Adam Schabow, who will perform original tunes like "There Isn't a War on Christmas."

This time of year, even if performers do not dedicate entire shows to Christmas, they often include holiday music in their regular sets. Take the jazz singer Gerri DiMaggio, who performs at the Concourse Hotel Bar Dec. 14.

"I just love those songs, and I like to pick quirky things, too," DiMaggio says. She cites Louis Armstrong's recording of "Cool Yule" as a favorite.

Also incorporating holiday songs into his shows is the Whitewater-based polka bandleader Steve Meisner. He performs at the Essen Haus Dec. 7 and 8.

"We make the standard songs into danceable tunes," he says."

Meisner has recorded an album of Christmas music, 2003's Forever Christmas, with Meisner originals ("Tundra Serenade," "Snowflake Flight") as well as standards like "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

"People cling to those standards," he says. "The hooks, they're monumental."

The hip-hop group Lost Souls get into the holiday spirit on Dec. 13 at the King Club. MC Dexter Patterson says they've been known to freestyle about Christmas.

The Gypsy jazz ensemble Harmonious Wail perform at the Concourse Hotel Bar Dec. 7 and the High Noon Saloon Dec. 9. At the Saloon, they'll open for Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks, who will perform the Christmas-themed show "Holidaze in Hicksville."

Along with holiday favorites, Harmonious Wail will play "Christmas," a little-heard song composed by Dan Shuffman, father-in-law of Harmonious Wail guitarist Tom Waselchuk. Waselchuk shared the song with Harmonious singer Maggie Delaney-Potthoff.

"He was in show business at ABC-TV in Chicago in the 1950s, and he was also a songwriter," says Waselchuk of Shuffman. "It's a beautiful tune, and Maggie just kills it with her voice, sings the ornaments out of it."

If variety is more to your liking, check out the Dec. 15 King Club performance of the MadCabaret, the wild revue of singing, dancing and laughs. Fans of the show are in for a treat that night, because in the cast will be the singer Joy Dragland, who founded the cabaret before moving to New York in 2005.

"We throw in Christmas songs," says Mark Gladue, who impersonates Neil Diamond in the show. "I do mostly Bing Crosby stuff, 'Mele Kalikimaka,' 'White Christmas.'"

Then there is Oy & Joy to the World: Comic Relief for the Holidays, a one-woman show that sees Madison humorist Jodi Cohen performing holiday-themed monologues by various characters. The show takes place Dec. 24, 26 and 27 at Imperial Gardens. Among the characters: a pet psychic, a Jewish grandmother and a northern Wisconsin political macaroni artist.

"It started out four years ago, because I just thought Jewish people had nothing to do on Christmas Eve," says Cohen. The first performances succeeded wildly.

The show is for everyone, she notes. "Anybody who lives in this culture is affected by this holiday," she says.

Cohen is surprised by how many gentiles show up. "Someone asked me, 'How do you know they're gentile?' They're the people in the big green and red jackets, the green and red scarves, the green and red earrings. It's so obvious, sometimes! Oh my God."

Cohen also performs with the comedy troupe Spin Cycle Improv at the Harmony Bar Dec. 16. "The theme is going to be holiday improv games," she says.

Touring acts are also stopping in town with holiday fare. Country star Kathy Mattea comes to the Overture Center Dec. 19 for a Christmas-themed appearance, and on Dec. 21 Overture hosts a Christmas performance by Minneapolis-based gospel singers the Steeles. Also on Dec. 21, the Stoughton Opera House features the holiday show of Riders in the Sky, the marvelous purveyors of cowboy music and comedy.

And capping off the whole season is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which lumbers into the Alliant Energy Center Jan. 5. Founded in 1996, the prog-rock outfit has made a cottage industry from its lavishly produced performances of holiday-themed orchestral rock.

By Jan. 5, you may be ready for the holiday season to be over. Just don't tell the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

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