I'd like to shout out Vanessa who taught me about the Solstice Squirrel years ago. It was explained to me that this furry friend brings presents to good children on the winter solstice. Heading out on the darkest night of the year is never appealing, but I remembered that festive rodent, and decided that if he could do it, so could I. An hour later I was wandering Mass Street in Lawrence on December 21st with a mind to both start, and complete, my holiday shopping. Over the course of three hours, I poked into a half dozen gift shops, several bookstores, and a couple of toy stores before the shop windows on the street began going dark and the chill of the night set it. A nice dinner at a Cajun restaurant warmed me up while I read through a fresh stack of Christmas cards pulled from my mailbox that afternoon. I couldn't have been jollier. Afterwards, I walked the four blocks east on Ninth Street to Nostalgia Room to hopefully see the Solstice Squirrel in action, and if not the squirrel himself, at least the cheer he delivers.
Nostalgia Room is a new coffee shop and non-alcoholic bar run by Emily Kate. It's a small room made smaller on this night to accommodate the night's special event. There were a mishmash of cozy chairs and loveseats arranged to face a makeshift stage, and pillows and throws were placed on the floor to accommodate the rest of the 30 (or so) people who snatched up the allotment of tickets the day they went on sale. The event was dubbed "A Cold One with the Boys." Indeed, it was cold outside, but inside, the bar was warmly decorated with garlands and fairy lights and stockings.
The night began with a welcoming set from organizer Heidi Gluck. She's had an amazing year – playing excellent shows, releasing what I believe to be the best album of the year – and this would be just one more feather for her cap. She sang two holiday-adjacent songs – a John Prine one accompanied by acoustic guitar, and then a Joni Mitchell song bolstered by electric piano. Both songs kept the audience rapt, and I watched as their vibrant cocktails slowly lost color to melting ice. Bradley McKellip followed with two instrumental numbers. First an apt "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" by Ryuichi Sakamoto on lap steel and then a cover of "Fairytale of New York" on electric guitar. The songs rang with reverb, and when McKellip felt a change was beneficial, he added or skipped notes accordingly. Both Sakamoto and The Pogue's Shane McGowan passed this year, so surely McKellip was sending them, and all of 2023, off with his selections. Percussionist Jackson Graham took a turn afterwards. He played two songs on vibraphone. The first was a very old hymn, the second a stroll through Guaraldi's lachrymose "Christmas Time is Here." Like McKellip before him, he deftly made the composition his own. Kawehi Wight performed next. The first song was accompanied by her live electric guitar. The second – a cover I forgot to note – built up slowly using loops that she grew organically from guitar, keyboard, and voice. This is of course her bread and butter, and what has made her popular that world over. She apologized for the slow and sad selections, but of course slow and sad are also comforting and reflective. That's the part of the holidays that I always wrap myself in. Afterwards, Gluck joined Wight for two additional duets that showcased their blending voices. And then it was time for a short intermission.
It appeared that everyone in the room knew each other. Lawrence builds community better than anywhere I've seen. This is particularly impressive for a college town where tens of thousands move in and out each year. I witnessed a lot of hugs and glasses being clinked. I decided that the Solstice Squirrel had been by.
The night continued with a couple of duets from McKellip and Graham. Their deconstructed version of "Little Drummer Boy" may have been the highlight of the night. Then the whole ensemble combined for a few songs. A version of "Silent Night" was offered up for the traditionalists. In it, Gluck and Wight traded verses, with Wight singing her verses in Hawaiian. A cover of "A Long December" followed. The quartet's version was less fraught than the original, and that upgrade prompted the only two-way dialogue of the night. "You made me like a Counting Crows song," chimed out from someone in the audience. After a quick discussion, Gluck ended the conversating offering the advice, "Go back [and listen to the albums], they're not that bad." Afterwards Gluck acknowledge her own album, playing "Ocean" alongside McKellip and Graham, before engaging the full quartet again for a cover of Judee Sill's "There's a Rugged Road." It was when preparing for a local Still tribute that this assemblage first played together.
The revue broadened when Kate Lorenz was given the microphone to read an essay she had written for the event. It was a humorous reflection about the quirkiness of Lawrence, motherhood, and the holidays. She reluctantly titled it "Trying to Holla at Christmas." Afterwards, Emily Kate said a few works about the venue. About her family's struggle with alcoholism, about her own, and how the bar was named for the room in her grandparent's home that was decorated with photographs and furnished in memories. She hoped to bring that peace to everyone with her space.
When the quartet returned for its finale, it offered up a visit with Neil Young's "Star of Bethlehem" and then returned to Joni Mitchell for "Urge for Going." Or maybe I've got the order all wrong. See, on this night I decided not to take fastidious notes on my phone, or crawl around to capture the photos and videos necessary to jog my memory. Instead, I stayed seated, immersed in the comfortable atmosphere created by the gracious hosts, and bathed in the warmth of the performances. There's a rumor that these revues could become a regular thing. And although I'm sure Heidi Gluck and Emily Kate can pull it off without any help, I've asked the Solstice Squirrel to do what he can just to be doubly sure.