Nightmare Before Xmas

Tidings of discomfort and woe: Reluctant caroler Dan Scott
Tony Nelson

Two Fridays ago, I was strolling through the bowels of downtown Minneapolis when I wandered into the annual annoyance known as Holidazzle. Cartoonish roly-poly figures bedecked in chintzy lights roamed in small circles down Nicollet Avenue, terrifying helpless children who had been condemned to a barrage of joyous overstimulation by their doting parents. Me, I just wanted to get to the bank. And so, I muttered bitterly to my-self, "Where are the terrorists when you need them?"

Of course, I didn't really want people to choke on their pudding and get buried with a stake of holly through their hearts. Terrorists are bad, as is joking about them--thanks for reminding me. I merely quote my antisocial musings to show the extremes to which the happiest time of the year can drive even generally ebullient sorts like myself, and what dark thoughts such oppressive cheer can stir up. Then again, if some industrious supervillains would scare the Holidazzled hordes back to Edina, well, I promise not to carpet-bomb their village.

Dan Scott is, I don't doubt, a more peaceful man than I. As he answers my questions reasonably in a northeast Minneapolis coffee shop on a recent December day, Scott seems incapable of expressing the sort of nasty fantasies I just copped to. Known for his work with indie brooders Live in Japan, Scott is a practicing Christian who doesn't segregate those beliefs from his lyrics. But this composed fellow still understands what holiday alienation is about.

"I have a hard time with holidays," says Scott. "I just don't get into them." And yet, resigning himself to the inevitable, Scott has organized something called a So-Low Christmas, a series of shows that feature local singer-songwriters fracturing conventional holiday music. (The first unholy night was last Friday at the Fireball Cafe; the next will be this Thursday, December 13, at 7th Street Entry.) Scott will play some original Christmas ruminations, as well as overhauling some standards. Like-minded compatriots such as Brock Davis from Work of Saws, Jon Reine of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, Jason Woolery of the Bookhouse Boys, and Sally Grayson of Standbye will play similar Christmas-themed sets.

The idea began three years ago when Scott organized a Christmas-themed show out at the Coffee Shock, as the Fireball Café was known in the distant past. With the help of longtime collaborator Russel Munson, the effort turned into a bleak "mini-musical." "It got carried away," Scott explains, though his smile makes clear this admission isn't an apology.

"Some people were thrown off by the fact that it was pretty dark," Scott recalls. "There's that side of things for a lot of people around the holidays. Everything is so incredibly joyful that it can be overbearing. The idea was to do something that's a little melancholy."

More plangently than most other American art forms, pop music has understood the underlying somberness of Christmas. From Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" to the Pretenders' "2000 Miles," separation and sadness have been the keynotes of pop Christmas music. Christmas movies, no matter how they toy with misery, inevitably wander toward a happy ending. But in popular music, Christmas is all Jimmy Stewart jumping off bridges, no befuddled angels getting their wings. In fact, the songs that attempt to spread cheer sound so unbearably trite you'd think Paul McCartney wrote them--even if he didn't.

That's nothing new, according to Scott. "A lot of the traditionals have a soberness to them," Scott says. For instance, he's currently working up a version of the old religious song "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Calling for the Messiah to "ransom captive Israel," the tune slogs along a minor-key tramp you could imagine chain-gang prisoners using to keep time as they lay tracks for a railroad.

Scott is part of a great Minnesota tradition of dour holiday caroling: Low's stoic holiday dirge Christmas is a classic of the form, and it comes up early in our conversation. "Honestly, one of the reasons I do this [the So-Low Christmas] is because I have a very hard time with winter," Scott explains. "Great, I live in Minnesota."

I wonder aloud what affects him worse: Is it the cold or the dark? Scott ponders that for a moment, then responds, "Yeah."

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