The Hippo


Jul 4, 2020








Sweet, Hot & Sassy. Courtesy photo.

Sweet, Hot & Sassy Christmas Concert

Saturday, Dec. 6, 7 p.m. at Franklin Opera House, ($10)
Saturday, Dec. 13, 4:30-8 p.m. at Strawbery Banke,
Friday, Dec. 6, 19 p.m. at Capitol Center for the Arts, ($15)

Sassy season
Popular trio regroups for holiday concerts

By Michael Witthaus

The three original members of Sweet, Hot & Sassy performed unique, swing-inspired folk music together from 1987 to 1995, until violin player Ellen Carlson left to earn her master’s degree. Guitarist Mary Maguire and string bass player Val Blachly recruited two new members and carried on as a quartet until decade’s end.

Among the records the group released, one has endured: Swingin’ ‘Round the Christmas Tree, a 1992 collection of holiday songs. Mixing hymn book standards like “Silent Night’ and “Children Go” with originals and swing gems — “Santa Baby” and “Mr. Sandman” reworked as “Mr. Santa” — it was a regional hit. 
After the band split, the three continued with a variety of musical projects. Currently, Maguire fronts her own group, Blachly is in both Swing a Cat and Mink Hills Band, while Carlson plays with High Range and EC and the Moonshiners. 
But the group’s holiday collection serves as a gravitational force pulling them back together every December. 
“We stopped and went our separate ways; then what seems to happen is people call and ask us to do our Christmas repertoire,” Blachly said in a recent phone interview. “So we get together for the Christmas gigs.”
Sweet, Hot & Sassy have four upcoming shows: Dec. 6 in Franklin, Dec. 12 in Brownfield, Maine, Dec. 14 in Portsmouth, and Dec. 19 in Concord.  Fans looking for an ultimate Christmas gift can even book the group for a house concert. 
Typically, shifting gears from their regular gigs is easy — “It doesn’t take too much, because we’ve been doing it for so long,” said Blachly — but this year is different. The trio expands to a five-piece with the addition of guitarist Jim Prendergast and drummer Carol Chapin. 
Chapin plays with Blachly in Swing A Cat, while Carlson and Prendergast are frequent collaborators and members of EC and the Moonshiners. Adding them was Carlson’s idea, Blachly said. 
“She and Jim worked out a bunch of tunes melodically where they play harmony swing stuff with the instruments, and she thought that would be real cool.”
The change creates a different dimension for the group’s signature close harmonies and musical interplay. 
“From Ellen’s perspective, it gives her the opportunity to do different leads and more groove,” said Blachly. “As a bass player, I have to say I like to really lock in with the drums and that allows for more a percussive sound. Guitar-wise, it’s easier to keep time — and there’s more energy when you add drums.”
Like restless kids before Christmas morning, Blachly, Maguire and Carlson eagerly anticipate the annual shows. Blachly talked on the phone with the trio in the background during a break from tightening up vocals. Asked to name a favorite moment in the show, they all agreed.
“The harmony work,” said Blachly. “Whenever we do ‘Star of Wonder’ I get goosebumps. It’s a very beautiful song and the room is usually still for a moment before they start clapping.”
“And the energy from the crowd is great,” Carlson and Maguire chimed in.
In the years since they regularly worked together, the band members’ musical directions have ranged from bluegrass to folk and American roots. But their love for the Andrews Sisters, Hoagy Carmichael and other mid-20th century standards endures. 
“For me it’s being able to do some really nice harmony work with good melodies,” said Blachly. “Not only that, a lot of that music was really fun. One of the reasons was probably that it was World War II and all of that; they wanted to bring up the spirit of the soldiers. So they made it fun.”  
As seen in the December 4, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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