Gary US Bonds – Christmas is ON! (review)

Gary US Bonds – Christmas is ON! (GLA / Allegro) review

The best Christmas album I’ve heard in a long time

These days, everybody is doing a Christmas album.  Problem is, most people aren’t doing it right.  Out of all of them, who’d have thought that 73-year-old Gary US Bonds would crank out the best of the bunch.  But, that’s exactly what he’s done with Christmas is ON!

Bonds is best remembered for a string of early Sixties hits like “Quarter to Three” and “School is Out” which captured a party atmosphere better than virtually anything that came after.  Amazingly, over 50 years later, he’s still able to conjure up that enthusiasm. He’s having a blast, and it shows.

The biggest problem with holiday records is that they have to be recorded months in advance – usually in the heat of the summer.  If you want to get an album out by Christmas, you need to start early with writing, recording, mixing, pressing CDs, designing and printing artwork, and finally promotion.  Imagine how hard it is to think about Christmas in June!  Yet, Bonds is so full of energy, you figure he just laid these tracks down this week.

Another problem is that a lot of older artists attempt to update their sound by using synthesizers and electronic drums.  While this method is cheaper than hiring an entire band, the music that they create usually doesn’t sound like their signature sound.  For Christmas is ON! it’s obvious that Bonds has a full band in the studio.  His early hits were just guitar, bass, drums, and a honking sax, and that’s exactly what you get here.  Simple ingredients, fantastic results.

Then there’s the fact that most artists simply rehash all the old classics, while not adding anything new to the mix.  Of the ten tracks on this new album, eight of them are new compositions written either by Bonds or other members of his band.  Only “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (which starts out with a beginning that sounds strangely like “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” from Brownsville Station) and “White Christmas” (which features Bonds’ wife and daughter on co-lead vocals), are covers.

Bonds doesn’t stray too far away from the classic sound that made his career.  The lead off track has a classic rockin’ feel with pounding piano and honkin’ sax.  “Christmas is a Phone Call Away” is fueled by a Bo Diddley beat and has some fun lyrics like “you don’t need high technology / you can use a rotary.”  He revisits the “Quarter to Three” classic party feel on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to great effect.

The best happens near the end with “Tis the Season to Be Lovin’ You.” Written by his guitarist, Paul Zunno, it exudes an intimate, soulful quality, that is very relatable.

Christmas is On! manages to be both fun and warm – two qualities essential for a great holiday record.  A whole lot of younger artists could learn a great deal from this album.  Surprisingly, Gary US Bonds turns in a fantastic Christmas record.  –Tony Peters.