Everyone loves a lousy, depressing Christmas song, and among the truly great ones (I'm lookin' at you, "Fairytale of New York”), there are the small, often overlooked chronicles of holidays gone awry.
"Christmas in Prison," by John Prine, is one of them, told from the point of view of a prisoner who opens his story with the simplest detail: "It was Christmas in prison, and the food was real good." He sings of daily prison occurrences like chess games, of pistols carved out of wood, and of the searchlight crisscrossing the yard. But mostly, he sings about the girl he left behind, whose "heart is as big as this whole goddamn jail, and she's sweeter than saccharine at a drug store sale."
Prine, as his many fans know, has mixed small, usually antiquated details with life's bigger questions for decades. The back door screen from "Hello in There." The graveyards and pawn shops from "Souvenirs." The commuter train from "Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)." The penny stuck in a burned-out fuse from "Grandpa was a Carpenter." I could go on and on.
Live, Prine tosses off these details with a nod and a wink, usually garnering a laugh from the audience, if only to split up the terse emotional impact of songs like "Sam Stone" or "The Great Compromise." He's simply one of America's greatest songwriters, and when he plays this week at the Warfield, expect his crackerjack two-piece backing band to elevate songs like "Lake Marie" and "You Got Gold" to transcendental status. Ramblin' Jack Elliott opens the show. Details here.
Of course, this week's calendar is teeming with other great live music in the Bay Area. Here are our picks.
Sunday, Dec. 13: 'Let Us Break Bread Together -- Sinatra Style' at the Paramount Theater. Frank Sinatra, whose would-have-been-100th-birthday is the source of many tributes this week, was never thought to be a gospel singer in the traditional sense of the term. But combing through the man's extensive back catalog, one finds gospel-tinged performances filled with spirit: "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Yes Indeed," "God's Country." (My personal favorite is "Ol' Man River" -- not exactly a gospel song, but listen to him sing "you get a little drunk and you lands in jaillllllllllll" here, and marvel at the way he extends "jail" for 13 glorious seconds into the next line, unbelievably dipping into an even lower register without taking a breath, and just try to tell me the good Lord isn't present.) This week, the Oakland Symphony presents Let Us Break Bread Together -- Sinatra Style, a gospel tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes with the Mt. Eden High School Choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, the Oakland Symphony Chorus, Vocal Rush and the Kugelplex klezmer band. Inside the gorgeous art-deco Paramount Theater, the concert is a slam-dunk. Details here.
Thursday–Sunday, Dec. 10-13: The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman at SFJAZZ. The Bad Plus tore onto the scene in 2004 with These are the Vistas, featuring a blog-worthy avant-garde jazz cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Since, the trio has unreeled a string of covers, ranging from Blondie's "Heart of Glass" to the movie theme from Chariots of Fire. But the trio's covers aren't pure novelty, as one might suspect, and their own material is rich, vigorous, and rewarding. This year, the adventurous trio teamed up with East Bay saxophone legend Joshua Redman for The Bad Plus Joshua Redman, easily one of the year's best jazz albums. (A single solo by Redman from the album was nominated for a Grammy Award earlier this week.) The fearless four power into the SFJAZZ Center for a four-night residency this week. Details here.
Tuesday, Dec. 15: Judith Hill at the Great American Music Hall. Judith Hill may not be a household name, but it's exactly that status that landed her a spot in the fantastic documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Following a group of career backup singers, the film exposed the vast talents of women whose headlining break had yet to come. Judith Hill's may be upon us, if her latest video for "Cry, Cry, Cry" is any indication. When I saw her at SFJAZZ's Joni Mitchell tribute earlier this year, she easily stole the show -- and in a lineup including Kris Kristofferson, Kurt Elling and Joe Jackson, no less. If you close your eyes while Hill is singing, you'll sometimes swear you're in the presence of a young Aretha Franklin. Goosebumps are all but guaranteed. Details here.
Saturday, Dec. 12: Eight Belles at the Last Record Store. Jessi Phillips and Henry Nagle last made an album together three years ago, and the two didn't skimp on taking time to make their latest self-titled album stellar. With the help of various members of other local bands (Once and Future Band, Con Brio, Painted Palms, Cave Clove), Eight Belles is a 10-song album that can be streamed right over here at the Bay Bridged. Those in the city can catch the band on Dec. 10 at the Rickshaw Stop, with Cave Clove; at a free afternoon show at the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa, the band appears with local songwriter Ashley Allred. Details here.