The annual variety show for charity revs up Elevation on Dec. 29 with 30 or so musicians & singers. Get the lowdown, plus this week’s Local Spins on WYCE podcast with new tracks by Michigan artists.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a winter storm, the “Christmas at Critter’s” show originally scheduled for Friday, Dec. 23, has been rescheduled to Thursday, Dec. 29, at Elevation inside The Intersection in Grand Rapids. Scroll down for the radio show podcast.
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Maybe it’s the atypical mix of musicians from bands churning out rock, country, funk – with a heaping helping of soul.
Maybe it’s the all-star guests from disparate West Michigan projects who create a super-group on stage unleashing seasonal favorites in exuberant fashion.
Or maybe it’s the incomparable camaraderie of gleeful musicians pulling together and performing for free to support a worthy cause.
Whatever the secret sauce, “Christmas at Critter’s” has become an unprecedented spectacle of holiday joy over the past four years, led by Chris “Critter” Newberg of Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys, Stefan Schwartz of Melophobix and Joe Bockheim of The Legal Immigrants.
The 2022 live edition of the musical variety show rolls out at Elevation inside The Intersection in Grand Rapids on Thursday (Dec. 29) with a who’s who roster of impressive guests filling the stage in support of Toys for Tots.
Tickets are $10 and available online here. All proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales go to Toys for Tots.
“I guess we’re always very fortunate to have a really awesome list (of performers),” Schwartz said. “You’re gonna see a lot of love and friendship on stage. It’s gonna be a really good time. We’re kind of serving it up as a variety show. There’s a lot of talent.”
With more than two dozen West Michigan musicians and singers from various bands taking the stage during the event, the ambitious endeavor requires plenty of coordination and rehearsals, but “somehow it all comes together,” Bockheim insisted.
“We decorate the joint completely. It’s all-ages. It’s one of a kind,” he added. “We pour our heart and soul into it. It’s for charity and it’s a great excuse for us to do something a little bit different and have this big, elaborate production because it’s only once a year.”
AN IDEA THAT REALLY TOOK OFF WITH MUSICIANS DONATING THEIR TIME
Before being interrupted by COVID, previous live shows have taken place at The Pyramid Scheme, Turnstiles and Elevation. But the idea for recording and performing Christmas songs actually had its roots in mid-summer, after the bands played the Beaver Island Music Festival in July 2018.
“The seed’s always been there, I guess,” said Newberg, who loves Christmas music and continued to push the idea at an August pool party at his Grand Rapids home.
“It really, really took off. I was shocked how many people were interested in the same thing, so we resolved to do it.”
Indeed, within a week, the musicians had recorded their first seasonal classic, Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolf Run,” at Newberg’s house. “It was the dog days of summer,” Newberg recalled, “and here we are recording ‘Run Rudolph Run.’ ” (Listen to “Run Rudolph Run” here.)
A “Christmas at Critter’s” album-release and the first live variety show followed later that year. “The live show seems to be where it’s at these days,” Newberg conceded.
But leaning on a variety of musical guests, the crew also has recorded various Christmas singles over the years, including two tracks featured for this week’s edition of Local Spins on WYCE: singer Hannah Rose Graves’ “Snowed Out in Kokomo,” and “Sleigh Ride,” featuring Loren Johnson. Scroll down to listen to the tracks and the full radio show podcast.
For Newberg, Schwartz and Bockheim, the nostalgic appeal of classic Christmas tunes — from Nat King Cole gems to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — fuels their annual soiree. “That is such a classic warm sound that was captured so eloquently,” Bockheim said of Christmas hits from the ’50s and ’60s.
Organizers stressed that they’ve fashioned their Christmas extravaganza as a family-friendly affair with Santa Claus on hand for photos with children, holiday inflatables and more. “We really try to make it inclusive and immersive,” Newberg said. (Scroll down to view a photo gallery from the 2019 show.)
‘AMAZING PLANNING, CRAZY DEDICATION’
Ultimately, the event oozes camaraderie and a loving aura among the 30 or so musicians and singers from disparate West Michigan bands who join the fun, including notable artists such as Elijah Russ, Da’Veonce Washington, Sarena Rae, Colin Tobin, Brandino Proch, Hannah Rose Graves, Devin Weber, Dutcher Snedeker, Mark Lavengood and many others. And all of them are donating their time to the cause.
“Everybody seems to really pull it out of the Christmas part of their heart. There’s that soft spot, that sensitive spot in everybody’s heart or brain or soul,” Newberg said.
“I’m just so amazed that everybody is willing to do this just for the joy of doing it. It’s just a great community-building event and I think it makes us all closer as friends.”
And while it requires “amazing planning, crazy dedication and hours of practice,” Schwartz said it’s all worth it.
“It’s an absolute riot,” he said. “It’s never ceased to be fun.”
This week’s edition of Local Spins on WYCE — which showcases regional music at 11 a.m. Fridays on WYCE 88.1 FM and online at wyce.org — spotlighted a number of locally produced, seasonal tracks including Sarena Rae’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Jake Stilson’s “Blue Christmas,” Sophie Coyote’s “This Christmas Season (Please Be Mine)” and Stovepipe Caravan’s “Christmas in My Dreams.”
The show also debuted new music by The Fever Haze, C.A.R.MA. Quartet (led by Peter Madcat Ruth), Dale VanderJagt, Cal in Red, Apollo Brown and Crazy Chestur. Listen to the radio show here.
PODCAST: Local Spins on WYCE (12/16/22)
PHOTO GALLERY: Christmas at Critter’s 2019 at Elevation
Photos by Eric Stoike
Photos by Anna Sink