Dan Blakeslee and The Calabash Club’s “Christmasland Jubilee” album cover. Illustration and design by Dan Blakeslee

As far as I’m concerned, there’s an unwritten rule about Christmas music: If you’re going to write original tunes, they had darn well be exceptionally good because there is no shortage of outstanding holiday tunes out there, and it’s risky business to hit us with new ones. That said, Santa hats off to Dan Blakeslee and The Calabash Club who released “Christmasland Jubilee” on Dec. 1. The album has a baker’s dozen of tunes on it and a whopping seven of them are originals.

Blakeslee lives in Providence, Rhode Island, but he grew up in a farm in South Berwick,  which gives him “forever a Mainer” street cred in my book. When he was 5 years old, he played sleigh bells alongside his father to The Chipmunks’ tune “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” Blakeslee said this is one of his favorite childhood holiday memories, and he’s been an “avid Christmas music enthusiast ever since.”

Dan Blakeslee during the first recording session for “Christmasland Jubilee.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

Blakeslee started writing Christmas songs in 2006 for his family as gifts using his home recording equipment but had always hoped to someday record an actual holiday album with his band. This dream became a reality last year when they had their first recording session six days before Christmas, complete with snow on the ground. A little less than a year later, “Christmasland Jubilee” is here.

It opens with the original tune “Mister Candy Cane,” which Blakeslee penned on Thanksgiving Day in 2007. You’ll hear a music box playing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” while sleigh bells ring and then the song kicks in with horns, drums, bass and a peppy piano. “He’s bouncin’ on the keys makin’ you believe/Everybody stop and pause to see boogie-woogie Santa Claus./He’s gotten very skinny from climbin’ down the chimney./He looks more like a candlestick though he says he’s old Saint Nick.” This, my friends, is how you write a modern Christmas song with retro panache.

Then there’s the nifty chestnut “Glowin, Blowin’, Jumpin’, Swayin’, Wishin’, Swingin’, Dancin’, Rockin’, Fishin’, Laughin’ Christmas Tree” with more of that piano and an accordion to boot. By the way, the stellar Calabash Club is Blakeslee on vocals, acoustic guitar, bells and glockenspiel, Mike Effenberger on accordion, organ and piano, Nick Phaneuf on upright and electric bass and Jim Rudolf on drums. “Christmasland Jubilee” also features a lengthy list of guest musicians and vocalists.

My favorite original Blakeslee tune on “Christmasland Jubilee” is the ballad “The Somerville Lights,” with a breezy piano and the pitter-patter of low-key percussion. And is that a triangle I hear? Flashback to elementary school music class! “Electric stars on the houses gleam/Roofs are lit with a reindeer team/Bright colors they tint the frozen snow/ Even traffic lights bring a festive glow.”

Blakeslee and his band also turn in dandy takes on old favorites “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Silver Bells” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The fusion of new and old tunes is seamless, and it’s one of the elements that makes this such a terrific collection of songs. Blakeslee closes out the album on a poignant, spiritual note with “Let’s Start Again” and its lines “Awaken with hope and forgiveness/Surprise us with news that is good/Together let’s move towards a difference/Whether you work in policy or wood.” Amen, Dan, amen.

“Christmasland Jubilee” is streaming everywhere and you can purchase a download at danblakeslee.bandcamp.com. The album is also available on CD and vinyl.

“Corruption, Deceit, Murder” album cover. Fat Knuckle Freddy

On Dec. 8, Fat Knuckle Freddy released the acoustic instrumental album “Corruption, Deceit, Murder,” and you can purchase it digitally at bandcamp.com/fatknucklefreddy or find it on streaming platforms. It was recorded and mastered in his home studio in South Portland.

Al Giusto adopted the name Fat Knuckle Freddy for literal reasons. He broke his left pinky finger as a high school hockey goalie rendering that knuckle the size of a thumb knuckle. “It’s fugly, that’s why I hide it with my slide,” the guitarist explained.

Giusto has been an officer with the South Portland Police Department since 2008 and spent several of those years as a school resource officer. He’s also been a musician the entire time and has been playing guitar since he was 13 years old with influences that include Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Son House, Elmore James and Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Fat Knuckle Freddy performing at Blue in Portland pre-pandemic. Photo courtesy of Al Giusto

I’ve sat with the album for about a month and find it to be utterly spellbinding. Giusto’s fingers manipulate his guitars masterfully. You’ll hear an archtop and tricone baritone on the album’s eight tracks. Giusto explained what they both are. “The archtop is clear and crisp while the baritone is big and driving. Many songs incorporate a slide to enhance the melody and blend the compositional ideas of the blues with modern classical.”

Tech talk aside, “Corruption, Deceit, Murder” betrays its title as the songs conjure up images of things like mysterious winding roads (“The Dance of the Capuchin Crypt”), exciting adventure (“The Sacred Dogs of Adranus”) and perhaps even outer space exploration or time travel in the 19-minute-long title track. I was hypnotized and also wildly impressed by the depth of Giusto’s deftness with playing. Giusto opened up about the song. “The opening theme and title came from binge watching ‘True Detective’ while playing guitar on the couch.” Despite it’s length, Giusto recorded it in one take, though it took him 10 months to nail one without mistakes. “It’s a marathon of guitar playing. I wanted to compete with John Fahey’s ‘Fare Forward Voyagers’ which is 23:00 long but improvised in sections. ‘Corruption, Deceit, Murder’ is fully composed and in 2 movements that flow into each other,” he explained.

Giusto also came up with the album’s cover image with the goal of it looking like a murder mystery novel. The photo was shot in South Portland during a hunter’s moon on Halloween night. “I was on patrol and I went to Fisherman’s Point to look at the beautiful moon. I’m glad I did and took pictures. It was not my intention to be for the cover but when I started to design it, I thought about the moon picture, and bingo.”

Comments are not available on this story.