Any New Hampshire musician who’s ready to get serious will inevitably pass through the doors of Rocking Horse Studio. The Pittsfield farmhouse-turned-recording-studio welcomed many of those musicians back recently, after producer Brian Coombes put out the call asking for people to participate in the New Hampshire Chronicle Christmas special.
“It’s the event of the season. I’m so glad everyone is here,” Coombes said during the all-day recording session in November.
New Hampshire Chronicle Christmas airs on WMUR on Monday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. and on Christmas Day and features holiday classics, offbeat favorites and a pair of originals. The day’s centerpiece is a full-ensemble rendition of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Nearly 30 singers crowded into the main studio to perform the song, originally done by a who’s who of English rock stars in 1985.
William Edward McGee flew up from Florida to do the special.
“I’d come from anywhere if Brian asked,” said McGee, who began his career singing with R&B stars Tower of Power and has spent the past few months working on a project with Coombes and Rocking Horse engineer Josh Kimball.
McGee waited in the anteroom, chatting with Pat & the Hats front man Patrik Gochez and singer/songwriter Tristan Omand. Will Kindler played an upright piano by the studio door; noodling along with Omand on six-string guitar, it soon turned into a bluesy jam.
When the singer broke away to go into the studio, the remaining group turned folky, switching to Dawes’ “A Little Bit of Everything” and riffing on Bob Dylan’s “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.” Eventually, the impromptu session migrated into the control room to join a group watching McGee as he performed a soulful rendition of “White Christmas.”
A spirit of giving extended to the intangible. After his time at the microphone was done, McGee and Gochez talked by the console, a veteran offering vocal tips to a young singer hungry to learn.
“You need to scream without screaming,” he said, demonstrating a breathing technique. “That’s how to preserve the voice.”
Gochez acted like he’d received the first gift of Christmas.
“Thank you for giving me that,” he said with a smile.
Gochez and Coombes only met a month ago, but the producer says the preparation work he’s doing with Pat & the Hats is one of two projects he’s truly excited about. The other is Rachel Vogelzang, a Concord singer/songwriter just starting work on her first album.
“There’s a vulnerability in her songs that’s honest and goes beyond the bravado — that’s what’s compelling about her,” said Coombes. “I want to capture that vulnerability.”
Chris Peters is another artist doing preproduction work at Rocking Horse. He made the melodic, upbeat Passing Lane with Coombes in 2010 and is working on a duo project with his wife, Kate Peters. His “Christmas Angels” is one of the two originals in the 13-song set list. It’s about finding magic in everyday life.
“Angels don’t have to wear big bright halos,” sing the couple.
The other original comes from Steve Blunt, the whimsical “Johnny Wants a Guitar for Christmas.” Its Chuck Berry-like refrain, “Ho, ho, Johnny’s been good,” sticks in the brain like caramel to teeth and should be a favorite when the show airs. Blunt and Coombes are old friends, having worked together since 1999.
Dusty Gray’s full-on channeling of Elvis Presley in “Blue Christmas” is punctuated by the tasty thump and twang of Myron Kibbee on baritone guitar, with a bottom end so deep that it’s miked in a separate room. Jordan Tirrell-Wysocki’s jaw-dropping instrumental rendition of “Silent Night” is another high point in the session; fellow Dusty Grey Band members Chris Noyes and Matt Jensen accompany the fiddler. Tirrell-Wysocki played on two more songs before leaving early to make a Sunday night gig.
Performing commitments kept the Brooks Young Band from making the session — the blues rockers were off playing a show in Pennsylvania.
“He’s a big absence,” said Coombes.
The Pat and the Hats rhythm section of drummer Bobby Rice and Brendan Harisiades backed Karen Grenier on a wonderful version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The two stitched a perfect waltz lick into the song; Gochez later called it “a Hats moment … improvised once, and perfected on the second try.”
Gochez then whooped it up on “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” twisting and shouting with joy and abandon in the studio, which was festooned with wreaths and holiday tinsel.
“Thanks, Prince,” said Coombes with a laugh when the song ended.
A big part of the Rocking Horse magic comes from the studio band: Tirrell-Wysocki on fiddle, Myron Kibbe’s elegant guitar, Eric Wagley’s metronome-perfect drumming, Joey Pierog in the pocket on bass. But the day’s Christmas potpourri had to include Richard Gardzina on saxophone. His intro to Kindler’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” provided just the right touch and set the mood for the soaring piece. Later, the veteran reedman helped rev up MB Padfield’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
Pierog later performed with his own group, Four Legged Faithful. The newgrass quartet did a moody rendition of “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring brilliant time changes and four-part harmonies. Four Legged Faithful recently finished up a new album at Rocking Horse, Devoured in the Dark, due for release in early December.
For the two final performances of the day, the studio was stripped down to a single grand piano. Vogelzang, who’d sung backup on a few songs up to that point, sat down to perform “O Holy Night” — Coombes chose it for her, and she spent all her spare time during the day in an upstairs room at the farm house working out an arrangement. What she came up with is hushed, gorgeous.
Carter Schade provided the day’s biggest surprise for most of the assembled throng. A 13-year-old piano prodigy, Schade performed a solo instrumental version of “Joy to the World” that brought cheers from the dozen or so people crowded into the control room. According to his father, Schade outgrew two piano teachers within a year and half of beginning lessons at age 4. He briefly worked with one other instructor on composition skills. “Joy to the World” is his own arrangement. Schade was dressed in blue blazer and bow tie for his solo.
It was the perfect way to end the day. The show’s executive producer, Maryann Mroczka, was ebullient as the WMUR crew packed up its gear.
“Hopefully, we can make this a tradition every year,” she said.