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Bay Area rockers unite as December People for annual
holiday food drive

By Jim Harrington - San Jose Mercury News

POSTED: 12/11/2013 03:00:00 PM PST

Most of the year, they're Bay Area-based musicians who perform with such classic rock A-Listers as Boston, Y&T and Sammy Hagar -- acts that have sold millions of records and packed arenas around the world.

But when the holidays arrive, they become the December People and embark on a more humble task -- playing for food. Literally. Every concert doubles as a collection drive for a local food bank.

"Part of our concept is we want to benefit the community we are playing for," says bandleader Robert Berry, who plays bass in the Greg Kihn Band and runs a recording studio in Campbell. At a recent gig in Monterey, December People brought in some 1,400 pounds of canned goods and other nonperishable items for a local food bank. The band's next gigs are Friday and Saturday at the Firehouse Arts Center in Pleasanton, in support of Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore.

The seasonal Bay Area supergroup also features Gary Pihl, Jack Foster, David Medd and Mike Vanderhule. You might not recognize their names, but there's a good chance you've heard them play. Which brings us to the other reason December People often draw a packed house -- its reputation for seriously roasting up the holiday chestnuts. Think of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" played like AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," or a "White Christmas" inspired by Billy Idol's "White Wedding."

"They are Christmas music, classic-rock style, turned up to 11," says Laurie Roberts, a DJ for Bay Area classic-rock radio station KFOX. "Nothing else like December People. Nobody I have recommended this show to has come away not being a total fan."

The project dates back to 2001, when Berry was contacted by a New York record label about putting together a holiday album.

"I said I'd only be interested if I could do something that was a little bit different," says Berry, who some still remember from the Bay Area rock band Hush. "I didn't want to just do a bunch of Christmas songs."

His idea was to mash up traditional holiday songs with hard-rock standards -- then play them in the distinctive style of the band being mashed up. The first number he attempted was a blend of "Silent Night" and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb."

"It fit like a glove," he says.

The fit was so good, Berry wound up recording an entire album's worth. But after the album was released, Berry moved on to other things, leaving the full potential of the project like a half-unwrapped present forgotten under the Christmas tree. Ten years later, he revisited the idea with a vengeance.

"I said, 'I want to make this my statement,'" he says. "So, I called up the best guys I knew and said, 'I want to reignite this December People project. I want to put a band together and get it to tour.' So, the first person I called up was Gary Pihl, from the band Boston, who is a friend of mine."

Pihl, who grew up in San Mateo, was initially skeptical -- but eventually swayed by the charitable aspect.

"(Berry) said, 'Every show is going to be a benefit for a local food bank,' Pihl says, "So, I said, 'Count me in.'" Berry then enlisted guitarist-vocalist Foster, keyboardist Medd (the Tubes, Quicksilver Messenger Service) and drummer Vanderhule (Y&T) and the all-star lineup began playing shows. Since 2011, the band has played several food-drive shows each holiday season.

"These guys are all great musicians from amazing bands," says Greg Kihn, the Bay Area rocker, author and onetime popular radio DJ. "It's the best holiday concert you'll see ever."

December People will release its fourth album in 2014, and Berry isn't bashful about his grand intentions for the band.

"My big plan is to take on Trans-Siberian Orchestra," says Berry, referring´╗┐ to the band that has created a global juggernaut with its hard-rock Christmas show. "That's what I really want to do. I think we have a show that is more fun, and music that is more accessible. That's my goal."

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The December People
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Where: Firehouse Arts Center, Pleasanton
Tickets: $30-$40;
Also: Patrons are asked to bring two cans of food (or other nonperishable food items) to benefit Open Heart Kitchen in Livermore.