It’s not always easy to find a venue solely focused on local musicians who play original music—but that’s what Bourgie Nights offers each month. The Wilmington Unplugged series is approaching its 10th year of showcasing original music by local artists. This year’s free ILM Unplugged Holiday Showcase is set to return on Friday, Dec. 4 with almost two dozen performers ready to take the stage.
When singer/songwriter Sean Thomas Gerard moved to Wilmington seven years ago, Wilmington Unplugged was one of his first gigs. It’s also where the beginnings of his band Onward, Soldiers can be traced back. “I have performed so many of them now I couldn’t count,” he says of the monthly series.
Currently held at downtown Wilmington’s Bourgie Nights (127 Princess St.), Gerard has organized Unplugged and the holiday showcase for the last couple of years, after founder and Bourgie Nights/Manna owner Billy Mellon—who founded ILM Unplugged—passed on the torch. “It’s become a sentimental thing for me, something I have a lot of pride in,” Gerard says.
The showcase typically sees about four to five songwriters a month. The holiday edition books up to 20 performers. Past productions have included themes, such as “A Beatles Christmas” and “A Honky Tonk Unplugged.” This year Gerard wanted to leave the format a little more open to interpretation.
Though all ILM unplugged events consist of original music only, the holiday showcase allows performers to fill their allotted time with three original or classic holiday tunes. “My hope is that it inspires people to write their own holiday music,” Gerard says. “But I also wanted to give some of the lesser-known musicians an opportunity to play an original song or two to a crowd of their peers.”
It never takes too much persuasion to get local artists on board for the holiday showcase. The community is pretty tight-knit and know they’re in for a good time if not a paycheck.
“This is a moral-raising event,” Gerard quips. “It’s a free show, so not much money to be made. . . .The whole point is to have a night to celebrate the holidays with as many local musicians as I can get on board. It’s almost like a holiday office party for local songwriters.”
Surprisingly, Gerard says, most artists have hinted at doing all holiday songs. Performers like Justin Lacy will have original holiday-inspired music, while others like Rebekah Todd are more traditionalists. “I always enjoy hearing others’ creativity,” Todd excites. “I jumped at the opportunity to participate [in the holiday showcase].”
While Todd’s been privy to creative holiday song choices by several featured artists, she’s not at liberty to provide details. “I don’t want to ruin the surprise,” she adds, “[but] I can’t wait to see what local songwriter Chris Frisina will come up with.”
Lacy has landed on performing one of his favorites covers, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
“I love playing it with The Swimming Machine,” Lacy tells of his backing band. “We first did it in Christmas 2010, and Dr. Seuss’ quirky lyrics were a perfect match for our oddball ensemble. We even had our backup vocalist deliver a Dr. Seuss monologue to introduce the song.”
All of the songs at the showcase appeared on Lacy’s 2013 holiday EP, “This One’s For Tina,” recorded with the Swimming Machine at Hourglass Studios. “The most challenging thing about writing holiday music is finding the time and motivation to write it, which requires you to reflect on the holidays far, far earlier than is remotely healthy,” Lacy says. “But songwriters have to get in out-of-place mindsets all the time anyway, reflecting on heartbreak when they’re no longer heartbroken, for example. I like the idea of trying to tap into the universality of the crazy complicated conceit that is Christmas. It’s such a shared experience—it beckons songwriting.”
Lacy’s drawn to more somber Christmas rhymes and tales. The let-down the holidays as heard in Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” or Dolly Parton’s reflection on the past year and reinvention for the new one in “Hard Candy Christmas.”
“I guess I like my Christmas music dark and dreary,” he muses. “I love Christmastime. Over the past few years, playing music with my friends has been the most affirming part of the holidays, the closest I can get to that yuletide wonderment of childhood. Although, spiked eggnog does work its own wonders, too.”
Todd, Frisina and Lacy will be joined by other local favorites, like Travis Shallow, Ethan Driskill, Vanessa Lynch, and duo Shaun and Shaylah Paul. The Midatlantic’s lead mandolinist Jason Andre will take the stage, as will Mike Blair, Tres Altman, Evan Baker, Jim Ashley, and Michael Buckley. There will even be a comedy bit by Johnny Gray.
Gerard will play a few tunes, too, but he’s not quite settled on what yet. “I typically wait until the holiday spirit hits me,” he tells. “I’ll probably know more after Thanksgiving.”
Some of his personal picks this time of year include “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” written by Frank Loesser in 1944 and originally sung by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon is an all-time favorite, though hard to sing. Sufjan Stevens’ “Songs for Christmas” and “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty also make the list. “I love when traditional songs are re-imagined,” Gerard adds. “It shows how creative the artist’s adaptation is.”
While some unplugged artists have laid claim to song choices, collaborations are also in the works and talks of a group sing-along to end the show. “That’s the other fun thing about the event: You get many songwriters in a room together and collabs are bound to happen,” Gerard adds.
The Wilmington Unplugged Holiday Showcase is set for Friday, Dec. 4 at Bourgie Nights in downtown Wilmington. The show is free of charge. For updates or other details, visit the event Facebook page.