Singer-guitarist Chris Allen says it took a minute for it to sink in that the Ohio City Singers wouldn’t play a public show during the holidays.
“The first Saturday of December is when we would normally do our Music Box show,” says Allen one afternoon over beers at Rocky River Brewing Company. “Last year, I was driving somewhere, and a Christmas song came on the radio, and it didn’t hit me until then how bummed out I was. For so many years, we always did a show that Saturday. It was tough. We were slated to do the Rock Hall show outside and then they had to close, and that got cancelled. Then, it was just darkness.”
Despite the setbacks, the group continued to work on songs throughout 2020.
“We connected heavily with the other band members in that period,” Allen says. “In some ways, it brought us closer. Some bands, you don’t talk to or see, but we got together a lot.”
Since live music has returned, the band has booked a series of shows throughout the month of December (proof of vaccination will be required to attend the gigs). The group performs on Dec. 4 at Music Box Supper Club
and on Dec. 10 at Forest City Brewery
. It also plays on Dec. 16 at the Rock Hall
. Some shows are already sold out; check with the respective venues to see if tickets are still available.
The festive live shows typically celebrate the season in grand fashion. Singer-songwriter Don Dixon often dresses up as Santa Claus, and he’s been known to belt out an exuberant rendition of William Bell’s soulful “Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday.” Singer-multi-instrumentalist Doug McKean will lead the crowd in a chant of “E-G-G N-O-G!” during the zydeco-ish “Egg Nog,” and singer-guitarist Austin Walkin’ Cane often turns in a woozy rendition of “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
The band’s history stretches back to the early 2000s when Allen and his sister Molly teamed up with McKean to work up four Christmas tunes for a big Christmas party to which they invited their musician friends.
They played the four original tunes they had penned as well as a few choice covers, recorded them and delivered them on a CD to their families as a Christmas gift. That signaled the band’s birth.
In 2008, the band released its first album, Love and Hope
, which it recorded at the Sachsenheim. It’s regularly released albums and singles ever since.
Earlier this month, the group had its first full-band rehearsal since its last show, a House of Blues gig that took place in December of 2019.
“We’ve been working on stuff throughout the last year,” says Allen. “We were really tight [at rehearsals], and it was fun just to crank it up.”
The band wrote at least 20 new songs in the past two years, though Allen says none of them will make it into the set lists.
“The main thing now is just to get the band back together playing,” he says as he looks through the voice memos in his phone to rattle off the names of a few of the new tracks. “One of my favorites is called ‘First Falling Snow.’ Austin [Walkin’ Cane] and I wrote it for him to sing it. If we were to do an album, that would definitely be on it. We have a fun Tom Waits-ian song called ‘Midnight at the Mistletoe Inn’ too. That’s a good one. I don’t know if we’ll do an album next year. We have released four or five records, and we have a lot of songs from those albums that we still never play. Until we start playing some of these other songs, I feel like we shouldn’t add to the fire."
For the upcoming shows, the group will play a "greatest hits" set, and Allen promises a couple of "deeper tracks" for the Forest City Brewery show.
Allen says he’s thrilled to have a slew of Christmas gigs on the docket.
“I think it’s going to be a blast,” he says of the upcoming concerts. “It’s going to be super fun. The band sounds great. We’re ready to go, and I think people are ready to be out at concerts and feel good about it. For the shows, you have to be vaccinated, but I think people are ready and will feel comfortable.”
Last year, the Ohio City Singers, a group of local musicians that regularly plays Christmas shows each holiday season in Northeast Ohio, was holding onto one last hope. It booked an outdoor show at the Rock Hall that seemed like it might just be safe enough to go on as scheduled. Then, at least minute, that show got cancelled, leaving the group without a single gig.