Few musicians embrace the holiday season with Harvey Reid’s vigor. Since releasing his first Christmas album in 1984, the eclectic guitarist regularly spends most of December in pubs, churches and opera houses playing carols. For the past decade his wife, singer Joyce Anderson, has joined in. Even the couple’s 5- and 8-year-old sons helped out on a couple songs last year.
“I can’t resist playing holiday shows. They have a magic that is unstoppable,” Reid said in a recent phone interview. “It’s the time of year when music has the most power.”
Parenthood caused him to pare down his schedule to just two New Hampshire holiday shows this year: Thursday, Dec. 19, at Four Corners Grille in New London, and Friday, Dec. 20, at Dover’s First Parish Church.
Reid is a virtuoso of steel strings, a multi-instrumentalist working across a range of styles. But he smilingly calls what he does “unpopular music,” adding, “I don’t do Springsteen and the classics all year long.” Christmas, he said, gives him a chance to play the hits … after a fashion.
“Christmas is the best example of the whole idea of what traditional music is,” he said. “There is this body of music and people just know it … it’s almost the only common music there is left. It evokes memories in people and takes them places. Scientists have measured it; it’s like the smell of a turkey. It really triggers things in people.”
The fingerpicking master also enjoys the degree of difficulty posed by many holiday songs.
“It’s hard music. A lot of it was written by real composers,” he said. “If you’ve ever tried strumming campfire guitar, there are only about three Christmas songs that you can do. Some are quite a challenge to play musically.”
The focus of the performances has evolved over time.
“My solo show used to be largely instrumental, but Joyce and I have been doing them for 10 years, and we do a lot of singing,” he said.
The pair released the holiday record Christmas Morning in 2005, and performances draw from the album: “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “We Three Kings” and the contemporary standard “Merry Christmas Baby.”
In 2009, they wrote a technology-themed update of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a satirical version with “a virus in my PC” substituted for “a partridge in a pear tree.” It’s quite funny and did pretty well on YouTube, but the song isn’t part of their show.
“I did that on a whim … I don’t usually clown around with music, especially at Christmas time,” said Reid. “You need to be endlessly hilarious, like Christine Lavin, then you can make people happy. But when you have only one or two funny songs, it’s dangerous.”
Beyond that, Reid wants to honor the tradition he’s become in fans’ lives.
“A lot of people tell me it’s part of their Christmas, they get the family together and they come see us play,” he said. “I take it very seriously, it’s a responsibility. The biggest compliment that I ever get is, I made them feel connected with the real spirit of Christmas. That is a pretty profound compliment.”
It’s the effect that brings him back year after year, no matter how complicated life gets.
“I don’t want to go around swaggering … but we can do that to people. Music is a kind of magic, and Christmas music has a magical power. If you hit people just right, you can get inside their heads and tinker around in there. It’s powerful stuff.”
As seen in the December 19th, 2013 issue of The Hippo