By the conventional means with which we normally view live music as it occurs weekend nights, we now have upon us what can rightly be viewed as a slow weekend.
The clubs will be closed. The arenas will be empty. The theaters will be dark. Nearly all manner of entertainment life as we know it will be still for a few days. Looking for cool live music on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Go to church.
So what The Musical Box has come up with as Christmas knocks on our door this weekend is something different — a sampler of soundtracks, if you will, that embrace the holiday's unavoidable sense of tradition.
This is music designed over the decades not as something that sits in the spotlight, but rather in the distance (or, in some cases, in the shadows) as accompaniment for some of the greatest yuletide stories ever told in film or on television.
Sadly, not all of these tales make the TV rounds at holiday time. Some, thankfully, do. And with shopping season nearly over, your best bet to sneak a peak at their narrative and musical magic during the holiday weekend is to search them out on the Internet. Discovering even one of them is like getting a Christmas card from another time. Their looks and, of course, sounds might seem distant and foreign. But their sentiments remain wondrously timeless.
Happy hunting and Merry Christmas.
1. The Avengers, "Too Many Christmas Trees" (1965): A holiday episode from Diana Rigg's first year on The Avengers. The plot deals with John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Mrs. Peel (drop-dead gorgeous Rigg) getting invited to a Christmas getaway at the estate of Brandon Story, an eccentric publisher who has his guests dress up at a Christmas Eve ball as characters out of Charles Dickens' stories.
There is a cockamamie subplot about criminal psychics, but the yuletide charm of Steed as Sydney Carton and Mrs. Peel as Oliver Twist is a delight.
The score, all hushed tones of winds and strings, is ultra-discreet. But Macnee and Rigg take the musical reins by singing ancient folk songs to combat the evil psychics. Best viewed after the kids turn in. Seriously.
The episode is available on The Best of the Original Avengers DVD release and on The Avengers — '65 Set 2: Volume 4.
A bonus: Story is played by Mervyn Johns, who portrayed Bob Cratchit in the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol. Speaking of which ...
2. A Christmas Carol (1951): As overly familiar as it might seem, Dickens' epic holiday ghost story remains a vital tale of reclamation and continues to define the human side of the holiday season.
Many expert tellings of the tale exist, and many a fine actor (Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Mr. Magoo) have portrayed the unrelenting miser Ebenezer Scrooge. But this exquisite black-and-white version with the great British actor Alastair Sim, which is available on DVD, tops them all.
Again, the orchestral score is powerfully subtle. It chirps merrily along when the story takes us through the streets of Camden Town. But the way the strings slice through the starkly lit, spider-webbed corners of Scrooge's digs as Marley Ghost appears is downright creepy. Put this one on just before midnight for maximum spookiness.
3. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): Admittedly, this is an obvious choice, but so what? You need a score card to count the ways A Charlie Brown Christmas remains relevant. It's a tale told completely through the innocence of children but addresses ever-so-gingerly the grown-up themes of holiday commercialism and seasonal discontent while cutting to the chase to explain, as Linus puts it, "what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."
The music simply beams. It is as childlike as the story line, with a piano-trio swing score that reinvented the career of pianist Vince Guaraldi. The music glides like a ballet one minute and bounces with irrepressible bop joy the next. It's a rightly recognized classic all the way around. Put this one on as you wrap last-minute presents. It's available on Hulu.com or on DVD and Blu-ray.
4. Twilight Zone, "The Night of the Meek" (1960): If the folks at the Syfy network had any nerve, they would show this outstanding holiday episode of The Twilight Zone around the clock on Christmas, the way TBS traditionally runs A Christmas Story.
The Night of the Meek represented series creator Rod Serling at his Dickensian best. There are no monsters on airplane wings, no paranoid suburban freak shows here — just a drunkard dime-store Santa Claus, played by Art Carney, who gets fired from his job on Christmas Eve.
Seeing nothing but misery and poverty in the streets to which he has been cast out, he makes a profound and selfless Christmas wish that, of course, comes true.
The music? Well, let's put it this way: You will never hear The First Noel quite the same after seeing this. Ideal for Christmas Eve viewing. The episode is viewable at CBS.com and on various DVD releases of the show.
5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966): Another no-brainer. Forget the windbag Hollywood version starring Jim Carrey. The magic of the holiday beast known as the Grinch is the creation of the ultimate odd couple: Dr. Seuss and Boris Karloff. Together they give life to the land of Whoville, where Christmas is welcomed with smiles, songs and Rube Goldberg-like toys that create the "noise, noise, noise, noise" that sends the green-hued Grinch into conniptions.
The great Karloff, in one of his final projects, was the voice of the Grinch and the narrator. The resulting warmth that he provides is intoxicating. The Seuss music is as classic as the story line, from the chorus of Welcome Christmas sung in the Whoville town square to the booming baritone-voiced Thurl Ravenscroft belting out You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch ("You're a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich ... with arsenic sauce").
Perfect for a DVD viewing on Christmas Eve afternoon with the family or on Christmas morning, providing you can detour the kids from the tree. If not, watch it on ABC Family at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Christmas night.