Festive favorites: Blenders put new twists on holiday classics
FARGO—The Blenders officially kicked off their annual holiday tour in Minneapolis last weekend and bring the set to Fargo tonight for eight shows over the next six days.
The quartet offered a preview when it played the Bell Bank Christmas party earlier this month, opening up for legendary country music act Alabama.
While the vocal group was grateful to give back to Bell Bank (which sponsors the Blenders holiday tour), playing with Alabama gave at least one member a new perspective on what he and his bandmates do.
"It was encouraging because the Blenders have really been talking about our legacy lately," says Darren Rust. "We've been together for 28 years and it's the length of our career that's becoming the talking point. We're starting to own it now and starting to take it to heart. There have been years where it's felt like we're trudging through the downslope of a career, but it's actually kind of growing and sustaining. And we're scratching our heads thinking, maybe we should have a different attitude about this."
For Rust, the producer and musical director of the group, sharing a bill with Alabama and working with another vocal group, Home Free, gave him a new appreciation of the band he co-founded. The results can be found on the group's new disc, "Holy Night," a fresh take on some old standards, such as a re-mix of "Silent Night" from their first holiday disc, 1997's "Nog," as well as some new holiday tunes.
"We've done so many Christmas classics over the years, we've had to go back and redo some of the classics because the old versions are maybe a little dated and we don't want to bring them back in their old state," Rust says. "Instead of trying to shine them up in their old state, let's do them to fit what we do now."
He and his partners in harmony, Tim Kasper, Ryan Lance and brother Allan Rust, recorded new, funkier, full-band versions of "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Go Tell It On The Mountain".
While the group has always had a serious soul side, the new grooves have been brought out working with Minneapolis musicians like guitarist Cory Wong and keyboardist and former member of Prince's New Power Generation, Tommy Barbarella.
"We've always had a bit of funk to use, surprisingly, for four white guys from Fargo," Darren says.
He, Kasper and Lance formed the a capella group in Fargo in 1989 with Allan joining a few years later as the quartet moved to more instrumentation.
"We've got so much a capella in our catalog," Darren says. "Over the years we found that to have a really entertaining show, you have to keep it going, keep it lively."
He says the group recently looked back at a holiday setlist from 15 years ago and were surprised at what they saw.
"We were dying because it was the sleepiest show we'd ever seen," Darren says. "It was a whole run down of sleepy a capella tunes. Really pretty, but people must've been falling asleep."
"When we do new music in the show, almost always we want it to be faster, upbeat stuff," Kasper says. "We got to a point where we thought a song was fast, but it was mid-tempo. We'd get offstage and say, 'That song just sits there.' It's OK to do a couple of those, but we want to keep it upbeat."
They still feature some a capella tunes in the holiday show, but it's a select few numbers.
"The a capella side of it is just that nice little break," Darren says. "We treat it like here's a tribute to what we've done over the years."
He still has an ear for a capella and has produced and arranged for Home Free for years.
"That was probably instrumental in recharging my batteries for the Blenders," he says. "After 28 years, you start running out of ideas, or just maybe out of inspiration."
He's already looking forward to celebrating the group's 30th anniversary and considering different approaches. One would be to do a club show of just the soul material, or doing another Christmas album of sacred songs.
"There are so many mile-markers, we have to be on our toes," Darren says. "We used to be able to sit back and wait for the Christmas season to roll around and throw a Christmas show together. Now we're realizing this thing has a second life or a third life."
If You Go
What: The Blenders Holiday Soul Tour
When: 7:30 p.m., tonight - Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
Info: Tickets are $42.50, https://tickets300.com/