The Key Studio Sessions: Arbor Christmas All-Stars

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It's A King Thing | Photo by John Vettese
It’s A King Thing | Photo by John Vettese

On the one hand, the annual Arbor Christmas Compilation and Pageant is a local curiosity, something that could only happen in this area (South Jersey, along the PATCO line to be specific) with this particular group of local musicians, creative folks and friends acting as the driving force. Every year, bands like Ages, By Surprise, It’s A King Thing and The Only Ghost in Town converge at Gradwell House Recording in Haddon Heights to record emo / indie / punk inspired holiday songs for a series of free compilations (Volume 14 is out now!) and put on a loose and lighthearted holiday pageant, typically heavily informed by geek culture, at various South Jersey venues.

On the other hand, it’s something more, and speaks to the strength of community. The Arbor Christmas shows began in 2000 when a group of local musicians, spearheaded by Jon Montague, got together to put on a show for their friends. When Montague passed away after battling GIST shortly after the second show, his friends carried on in his memory. As founding member Mike Maier remembers on the Arbor Christmas website:

Jon and I wrote the script for the first two shows together. There almost wasn’t a show the second year because Jon had been in the hospital, but he insisted on doing it when he got out. It was that following January that he had passed away. After that, I had made promises to everyone that we would continue doing shows in memory of Jon. Jon’s brothers, Adam and Jamie, were in full support of this idea and became heavily involved. Brian Mietz had also been a big part of the show since the second show.

Since then, the four of us have assembled the show every year. I write the script with plenty of help from Adam, plus ideas pitched by Brian and Jamie. Brian also designs the artwork for the CDs that are given out at the show (another idea of Jon’s. The first year was a cassette!) Most everyone involved in the show helps in some way with putting it all together. Between the food, the decorations and Dave and Steve (Gradwell House Recording) providing time at the studio to record. I think the fact that it’s such a group effort is why it’s more like a party than a show. It’s all very personal to us.

Over the past fourteen years, the Arbor Christmas Pageant has not only become an annual celebration of Montague’s memory, but also a time for friends to converge and families to mingle. It’s even begun to span generations – while some participating bands are in their mid-20s, folks who were there at the beginning have kids now, and in some cases, kids old enough to participate. Singer Jeffrey Blatcher of the band Ages has participated in so many Arbor Christmas installments that it has its own Christmas album collecting all their songs, and Blatcher’s two daughters Iris and Starla, who perform as The Infiniteens. And the pageant has grown in size and scope, with its beginnings in Montague’s apartment for a small group of friends and growing today to an event at larger community halls that draw hundreds of attendees.

Not only is the show cross-generational, it’s civic-minded. The compilation may be a name-your-own price download (which, sure, sometimes means “free”) but when money is donated,  it is split along with proceeds from the pageant between a scholarship fund at Haddon Township High School in Montague’s name; a GIST research charity; and music programming in Camden public schools.

This Christmas, we got together a crew of the Arbor Christmas All-Stars – Ages, The Classic Brown, The Infiniteens, It’s A King Thing, Bacio, Norick Eve and Endor Endor – to record some of their favorites Christmas originals from over the years on location at Gradwell House Recording. Check out photos of the session in the gallery, stream and download the set below and watch a video montage of the recording session after the jump. And have a very happy holiday from all of us here at The Key!