The moment Red Young hits the piano on opening track “Silent Night,” any notion that the Austin Blues Revue set out to make a traditional, Mannheim Steamroller style Christmas album flies out the window.
Young rolls the keys like it’s happy hour on Bourbon Street as The Texas Horns burst through the air. The Tejano-style melody Mark Kazanoff, Al Gomez and Greg Wilson give on the Christmas classic reminds you there’s tamales in the oven while the family exchanges gifts. By the end of the first four minutes you’re on your feet spilling hot cocoa as you march around the room like a Mardi Gras parade.
The idea for An Austin Blue Christmas was born through a conversation Executive Producer Pete Monfre and Texas Horns’ Conductor Kazanoff had about the 1986 release An Austin Rhythm and Blues Christmas that featured local legends The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Lou Ann Barton, Paul Ray, Angela Strelhi and Charlie Sexton.
Monfre brought back guitarist Derek O’Brien, who produced and performed on countless Antone’s Records releases, and updated the classic with Recording Engineer Stuart Sullivan and Producer Mark Epstein, who also performs on bass guitar. Together they selected a pool of musicians that define the local blues scene today.
All of the proceeds of the album go directly to the Austin Musicians Business Mentorship Fund, an advocacy group that mentors artists and teaches them how to build a sustainable career.
“We’re fighting for musician wages,” Monfre said, “and showing people how to do live music and not live at the poverty level.”
The Austin Musicians Business Mentorship Fund originated five years ago when the West Fifth Street Antone’s Nightclub location closed and blues artists that had taken the stage for over three decades lost one of the most prestigious venues in the world.
“Someone told me ‘when Antone’s closed the blues kind of lost its home,’” Monfre said, “and that’s when we came along.”
The ACF holds monthly events to a sold-out crowd under the Austin Blues Revue title, featuring artists like Marcia Ball, Greg Izor and dozens of others, along with drummer Kevin Hall and Epstein that form the backbone of the rhythm section.
“Our message is getting out that these guys are valuable. They drive the city’s economy,” Monfre Said. “They shouldn’t have to live below the poverty level.”
Monfre’s words hit close to home now more than ever, with long-time established artists Dale Watson and Redd Volkaert packing up and heading east after navigating rising costs of living and watching venues like Threadgill’s World Headquarters get priced out of existence.
Monfre wears many hats between running the ACF and organizing events to showcase the talent displayed by Malford Milligan and O’Brien on Freddy King’s “Christmas Tears” that couldn’t exist anywhere else. His performing credits only include vocal parts on two of the albums tracks.
“I was supposed to redo some of the guitar parts,” Monfre said, “but I couldn’t touch them because they’re Derek’s and they’re perfect.”
The vocal work by Milligan, Soul Man Sam Evans, Guy and Jeska Forsyth, Michael Cross and Monfre drives the holiday vibe while also providing world-class talent. It’s as smooth as a hot toddy by a warm fire.
After Evans heard the instrumental version of “Silent Night” that opens the album, he asked for a chance to try it and aced it, providing a soulful outro that leaves you begging for more.
“Sam heard the song and he wanted to sing it, and of course we were like ‘sure go ahead,’” Monfre said. “I think that’s the cut of the whole album.”