The Lower Lights’ list of band members looks more like a movie cast than the lineup for a folk group.
On a press page, the band — which describes itself as a gospel and folk band in the vein of "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" — lists more than 30 musicians as members, plus a 10-person choir. The names are like a who’s who of Utah music; members of Neon Trees, Fictionist and Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band all show up, as do well-known solo artists like Mindy Gledhill and Debra Fotheringham. It’s a sprawling cast, which this month will tackle a sprawling goal: The Lower Lights will perform four Christmas shows in one week at Salt Lake City’s Masonic Temple.
If you go
What » Gospel-folk band The Lower Lights plays four Christmas-themed shows in Salt Lake City.
When » Dec. 9, 10, 12 and 13.
Where » The Salt Lake Masonic Temple, 650 E. South Temple.
Cost » $13.65 including service fees.
The band planned four shows — scheduled for Dec. 9, 10, 12 and 13 — after selling out smaller or less frequent concerts for the last three years. This year also marks the release of the band’s new Christmas album, "The Lower Lights Sing Noel." In anticipation of the shows, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a few questions by frontman Paul Jacobsen. His responses are included below.
Give me the brief history of The Lower Lights. For people who are unfamiliar with the band, what are the basics?
Jacobsen: The Lower Lights is a collective of musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds — folk, bluegrass, indie rock, Americana, pop, rock, jazz. Nearly every musician is involved in their own individual music careers and we just come together to do this rather specific thing.
The seed of The Lower Lights is probably better described as seeds, as I think many of us had — in one way or another — felt a pretty deep desire to do something like this. By "this" I mean "interpret hymns and the Christian songbook in a musical way that resonated with us." That said, if there is a patient zero of the idea of the Lower Lights, it’s probably Pat Campbell, one of our drummers, who had a version of the vision a long time ago. And as long as we are giving credit, I think it’s important to note that Scott Wiley, guitarist/producer/mixer, is the hub of the whole thing. Before we started, all the musicians didn’t necessarily know each other personally. But we all knew Scott. He had produced albums for and been in bands/projects with all of us in one way or another. And he really put his arms around all of us, sort of playing matchmaker, and now we’re all friends and bandmates.
I know the Christmas show has been growing for years, but what first prompted you to do it?
I think the impetus that pushed us to form the group and make music together is the same thing that nudged us towards our first Christmas show: a desire to hear these songs in a way that resonated with us. It makes sense, too, that a group built upon the idea of interpreting hymns and old Christian songs would land on Christmas songs, as they fit that bill. They’re classic, they’re well-known and loved by many. It was a natural step for the group.
There are so many options on the Christmas calendar, but I personally felt like there was a gap for people who like the music I do. And I think we are filling the gap. We couldn’t have predicted that the overwhelming response to the shows. We started up at The Post Theater (in Fort Douglas) the first year and that place holds maybe 250 people. Demand was so high that we had to add a second show the same night, which was completely unexpected. The next year we moved to the Masonic Temple Grand Auditorium — where the shows are this year — which holds around 600 or so, and that sold out. So we did two shows last year and those sold out. The response is humbling but also a real sign that we weren’t the only ones longing for this sort of thing in our Christmas calendar. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant and that it doesn’t sound bragging. I take no credit for it. I think we just were lucky to find an audience who wanted to do what we want to do.
Other than the increased number of nights, what will set this year apart from years past?
We have a whole batch of new songs, from our new album "The Lower Lights Sing Noel." In the past, we have peppered in a decent smattering of our non-Christmas repertoire. But this year, the Christmas-to-non-Christmas ratio will be more in Christmas’ favor. We are also bringing a few special guests to come sing with us and have hired outside help to make the stage and lighting a little less homemade. We did our best, stringing Christmas lights culled from all of our garages, but it was time to ask a pro.
You’ve just released a Christmas album. How did the band decide to do that? How long has it been in the works?
We initially just wanted to release an EP. We thought it’d be nice to have a few songs for people this year and then, as happens with this group, people came with a lot of great ideas and, before we knew it, there was an album. We really had to race to get it out. Most people record Christmas albums in spring and summer, sweating it out in L.A. or wherever. But we did ours in October, thinking it might even just be a digital-only release. Suddenly, we were sitting on an album’s worth of great songs (if I may say so?) and had to really hit the gas to get it ready.
There’s no lack of Christmas-themed events this time of year, and most people are especially busy. For someone who is sitting on the fence or who is choosing between various options, why is your show the very best thing to see?
This is the part where the rest of the group fires me from being Guy Who Gets Interviewed, but I don’t know that we are the very best thing to see. I don’t think there is a very best thing to see. I think we are the best thing to see if you are in the market for beautiful Christmas songs played and sung with soul, if you are in the market for "O Brother Where Art Thou" meets "A Christmas Story," if you want to feel a lot of joy radiating from musicians who love to play these songs together. But far be it from me to say that we are better than whatever else is out there. I think we are a night no one would regret coming to be part of and that we help people feel the Christmas spirit in our own way. If that fits into your or your family’s tapestry of Christmas traditions, we are honored.
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