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The Week’s Best Free MP3s, incl. The GrooveBarbers, Lily Mae, Jenny Owen Youngs

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

Christmas week brought us two holiday sessions to enjoy.  Veteran a cappella group The GrooveBarbers stopped by to record 10 classic holiday tunes in celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Night Before with Robert Drake.    The second session came from Arbor Christmas All-Stars, an annual gathering of local bands at Gradwell House to record some original holiday songs.  Check out a couple below and get the rest here and here.

This year’s final Folkadelphia session featured singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs.  The Brooklyn musician performed four tracks, including a cover of “Colors of the Wind” from Disney’s Pocahontas.  Listen to the full session below and don’t forget to pick up a free download of Folkadelphia Sessions: Vol. 1 here.

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Listen to the Arbor Christmas All-Stars Interview and Key Session

The Classic Brown | Photo by John Vettese
The Classic Brown | Photo by John Vettese

Our first ever Christmas Key Studio Session was released this week, featuring the Arbor Christmas All-Stars – members of numerous South Jersey bands who each year record a compilation of original holiday songs and throw a benefit Christmas pageant. The session aired on WXPN on Christmas Eve, featuring an interview with Dave Downham of Gradwell House Recording (where the performances were taped) and longtime Arbor contributors Brian Mietz, John Masino and Tom Ryan. You can listen to the entire session as it aired in the player below; download the songs plus outtakes, see a short video and check out a photo gallery at the Key Sessions post here.

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The Key Studio Sessions: Arbor Christmas All-Stars

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!

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Download Arbor Christmas Vol. 13 featuring Young Statues, Into It. Over It. and more (concert and pageant tonight at The Auction House in Audubon, NJ)

For the many musicians who make their way in and out of South Jersey’s Gradwell House Recording over the course of the year, Christmas is a special time. For the past 13 years, the indie and emo-centric studio has released Arbor Christmas comp, a free downloadable of Christmas songs from a variety of bands, ranging from those who just got together to record Christmas music – that’s how Ages got its start – to popular names in the DIY circuit – Young Statues, Into It. Over It., Aspiga and more. This year’s compilation was released to Bandcamp today as a free download – you can listen to it below, and get yourself a copy here. Tonight, the crew celebrates its release in the 13th Annual Arbor Christmas Concert and Pageant, which was conceived in the late 90s by the crew’s scene buddy Jonathan Montague as a unique way for DIY punk kids to celebrate the holidays. From the website:

He wanted to throw a Christmas show, but do something different. He was thinking of the old Christmas TV specials that had the celebrity host “at home” and all of their celebrity friends would stop by and hang out and maybe perform a song. That was the basic story of the first year. It was supposed to be in Jon’s new apartment and all his friends dropped by to bring gifts and perform some songs.

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.

Proceeds from the show typically benefit the local Jonathan Montague Scholarship and the Arbor Foundation. More information on tonight’s show at the Facebook event page; listen to Volume 13 below (and download volumes 1 through 12 here).