Walter Tunis: Northside Sheiks channel Elvis, Phil Spector for Christmas

Contributing Music WriterDecember 12, 2013 

Coralee and Mike Tevis, front right, will join The Northside Sheiks this weekend. Front row: Ray Smith, left, and Tevis. Back row, from left: Willie Eames, Coralee, Robby Cosenza, Lee Carroll and Smith Donaldson.

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Northside Sheiks

8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 14 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116. Willieslex.com.

When it came time to ring in the holidays, the roots-music specialists of Northside Sheiks turned their interpretive skills to two classic holiday recordings: the first Elvis Presley holiday set, 1957's Elvis' Christmas Album, and producer Phil Spector's 1963 compendium, A Christmas Gift for You (released in later editions as simply Phil Spector's Christmas Album). This weekend, the Sheiks — an all-star outfit of Central Kentucky musicians who have played mid-week sets of early blues and R&B music over the past two years — will offer complete performances of each record, along with other seasonal delights.

"With Christmas shows, you can always run the risk of super-cheesiness," Sheiks co-vocalist and co-founder Ray Smith said. "But we thought Elvis' first Christmas album and the Phil Spector Christmas record were pieces of real musical history. So we decided to use those as our focal points."

The Sheiks — drummer Robby Cosenza, bassist Smith Donaldson, guitarist Willie Eames, keyboardist Lee Carroll and Smith on harmonica, guitar and percussion — take on Elvis' Christmas Album on Friday with help from longtime Lexington roots and rockabilly artist Mike Tevis. That material seems to fit right in with the kind of formative Americana music on which the band thrives. But the Spector record — a lavishly produced soul-pop record that featured Darlene Love, The Crystals and The Ronettes — might seem a touch removed from that rootsy base.

"We do a lot of R&B, a lot of Little Willie John stuff, in Northside Sheiks," Smith said. "Spector represents later R&B and pop, you could say, but I think it's still in the wheelhouse. We do a pretty soulful brand of music, so it's not too much of a stretch, really."

Fellow local faves Coralee on vocals and Warren Byrom on trumpet will augment the Sheiks lineup for the Spector show on Saturday.

"Northside Sheiks is a really fun band because everybody really tries to dig deep into early blues and soul. We circle everything around that style and really tried to be true to it."

University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble

7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Free. (859) 257-4929.

The road to Chicago during the holidays has become a familiar one for Miles Osland. This week, he will follow that path again by taking the University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble to the city's annual Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra and Music Conference for the third time.

"It's not just a great opportunity for the students; it's a great honor for the university," said Osland, director of jazz studies and professor of saxophone at UK and the ensemble's director. "This is the biggest conference of its type in the world. It's a huge honor to get selected to go."

As was the case when the jazz ensemble previously performed at conference in 1998 and 2007, logistics can be difficult. The trip coincides with finals and homeward travels for the student performers.

"It's always scheduled during UK's finals week and the end of the semester, so everyone plans in advance to make the trip happen," Osland said. "I knew last summer that we were invited, so at the beginning of the semester, the students had to go to their professors and make special arrangements to take their finals early. But what's nice is I've never had any problems with that."

The ensemble will preface the Midwest Clinic with a concert Monday at the Singletary Center that will preview much of the music that the group will play in Chicago. The repertoire will include an arrangement of the David Porter/Isaac Hayes soul classic I Thank You (a major hit for Sam & Dave in 1968) by Yellowjackets saxophonist Bob Mintzer. Mintzer and jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon (who plays locally this weekend with the Lexington Brass Band) will perform with the ensemble in Chicago next week. Several compositions by pianist and fellow UK instructor Raleigh Dailey also will be featured.

"Every year, I think, 'This is our best band ever,' Osland said. "But the band we have this year, ... it's pretty burning.

"The cool thing about getting to go to the conference is that we're going to be playing in front of our peers. It's a great recruiting tool, too, because all the best middle school and high school band directors in the country are going to be at this conference. And they will be listening to us."

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