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December People Rock the Firehouse for a Good Cause

by Carol Graham, The Independent, December 26, 2013

After she introduced December People, rightly referring to band members as 'rock royalty,' Jane Onojafe moved to the wings where she had a clear view of the audience.

"I could see faces just light up after the first minute or two of music, when they 'got it,'" said Onojafe. "After that, it felt like a big holiday party! These are five top musicians who have sold millions of records in the other bands they perform with. Since this is a unique concept, most audience members probably didn't know exactly what to expect."

The audience quickly got on board. Because what December People does is perform well-known classic Christmas carols mashed with well-known classic rock songs. Think White Christmas woven into Billy Idol's White Wedding. Or All I Want For Christmas is My T-t-t-two Front Teeth overlaying George Thorogood's Bad to the Bone. Or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer superimposed over AC/DC's Thunderstruck.

"We are a rockin' holiday show, real players from well-known bands," said founder and frontman Robert Berry. "We put on a show that is easy to sing along with because you already know each holiday song. But you 'get the joke' when you discover who we perform it like."

In the hands of less gifted musicians, the concept could have missed its mark. But the five members of December People are among the best musicians in the business. With Berry (The Greg Kihn Band, 3, Ambrosia) at the helm, the seasonal Bay Area supergroup features Gary Pihl (Boston, The Sammy Hagar Band) on guitar and vocals, Dave Medd (The Tubes) on keyboard and vocals, Mike Vanderhule (Y & T) on drums, and Jack Foster (The Jack Foster Band) on guitar and vocals. Together, they have so much talent and magnetism - and so much fun onstage - that it's impossible not to be hooked.

For the first time, December People played Pleasanton’s Firehouse Arts Center for two sold-out performances on December 13th and 14th.

"The mood they generated was so positive and fun while delivering high- caliber rock ‘n roll," said Onojafe, the Firehouse’s public relations coordinator. "We had a number of people who came to the Friday show buy tickets and come back on Saturday night!"

One of the key reasons the five musicians come together to perform as December People during the holidays is to help stock local food banks. Concert goers are asked to bring canned or non-perishable foods to donate at each venue. For the Firehouse concert, donations will go to the Tri-Valley's Open Heart Kitchen.

"We are truly grateful for the compassionate kindness of these musicians," said Open Heart Kitchen's executive director Linda McKeever. "They displayed the true Christmas spirit. Fulfilling the human spirit's need for music and art is advanced to an even higher joy when it's combined with providing an opportunity for the community to help fill the basic human physical need for food."

The band performed 19 of the 40 songs they have recorded on CDs which feature carols performed in the styles of Led Zeppelin, Journey, The Who, ZZ Top, Queen, the Beach Boys, U2 and Elton John. Asked whether there have been any songs that didn't quite work, Berry replied, "Oh, yes. Trying to do Silver Bells like the Stones was awful."

It's hard to believe Berry can't work his magic with any song, so seamless and riveting are his arrangements. Berry gathered his top choices for band members with similar creative vision several years ago. Yet he was surprised at an early rehearsal when it was revealed that Dave Medd, the talented keyboardist of The Tubes (She’s a Beauty, Talk to Ya Later, and White Punks on Dope), didn't know one of the world’s most popular Christmas songs.

"When I showed him a part in the middle of a song where he had to play Jingle Bells, he didn't know it," said Berry. "He'd been raised a Jehovah's Witness. He wasn't raised with Christmas songs in the house. But he moved on from that long ago and he's all about celebrating Christmas now - even wearing a Santa suit during one song."

Following their shows, the musicians join the audience in the lobby to take photos and sign CDs.

"We were amazed by the concert on several levels," said audience member John Hernan. "The writing of the lyrics is very witty. They blend classic rock songs - big hits - with Christmas songs, then add changes that are very clever and sound great. The band was tight, all pro, and the venue was perfect. The lights and fog effects were much more than we expected. It added a great vibe to the music."

Although Hernan said the show was all-around great, there was one special moment for him. "Gary Pihl is a lead guitar player for the rock band Boston. A surprise guest in the audience was Boston’s new lead singer David Victor. He went up, sang with the band, and the crowd loved it!"

"We have friends all over the country so you never know who might show up," added Berry. "Greg Kihn was a guest last year in San Jose. DJ John Michael sat in on marching drum with a 20-member choir in Monterey."

With the holiday season winding down, the musicians will soon be returning to play with Greg Kihn, Y & T, Boston and The Tubes. Fans will have to wait till the next holiday season to see another December People show - and hear what new songs Berry has added (a Tubes song is in the works).

"The band was so generous with their time and so willing to chat with everyone and take pictures after the shows," said Onojafe. "Their hearts really are all about the food drive - spotlighting the need and helping to do something about it."

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