The road to the prettiest New Orleans Christmas album of 2001 started in Oregon. That's where guitarist John Fohl was living in the mid-90s and where he met Theresa Andersson when she was touring in Anders Osborne's band. When BeauSoleil came through the Midwest, Fohl met guitarist David Doucet, and sold Doucet a steel guitar. Numbers were exchanged on both occasions, and Fohl's Rolodex came in handy when he left his band, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and moved to the Crescent City in 1996.
Two years ago, Fohl was asked to participate in the St. Louis Cathedral's annual holiday concert series. "I thought of David immediately," says Fohl, "and thought of using Theresa to round it out. David and I both play fingerstyle guitar, and there aren't that many of us around. And I think Theresa can play with anybody and make it sound better, since she sings and plays so beautifully."
The trio's moving renditions of songs like "O Holy Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in their debut 1999 performance earned them a return invitation for the 2000 St. Louis Cathedral holiday concerts -- and sparked the idea of recording an album. The nature of the project offered each member of the trio the opportunity to spotlight a different side of their musicianship by playing acoustically, without a rhythm section.
"It was very gentle the way it evolved," says Andersson. "It just felt natural, and we didn't pick things apart too much. Normally when I play violin, when I'm playing through my amps and doing the rock thing, I have a different approach. With this, I felt like I was playing like I did when I first started -- very simple and straightforward, no frills. If felt like going back in time."
That feeling glows throughout the resulting CD, Peace Stories. The sacred material is complemented by a handful of songs that spotlight each member and contribute to the warm spirit of the project. Doucet's Cajun heritage surfaces in his passionate vocals on two songs he sings in French, "Trinquez" and "Il est Ne, le Divin Enfant." Fohl brought the bluesy and joyous original composition "A Carol a Day," and Andersson returned to her childhood with an a cappella treatment of the song "Nu Tandas Tusen Julejus" (1,000 X-mas Lights).
"I knew that I wanted to bring something Swedish, because that's my heritage," says Andersson. "That song means a lot to me, because it was the first song I ever sang in public. I was 4 years old and sang it in Sunday school for the Christmas party."
While Andersson, Doucet and Fohl each bring a unique sound to the trio, it's clearly an ensemble -- and one that makes unexpected, sublime musical connections. Its version of "Silent Night" is a prime example, with Fohl's slide guitar handling the lead melody, Doucet playing some Hawaiian slack-guitar style parts, and Andersson singing the song in Swedish. "That was kind of a happy accident, but we knew there'd be moments like that because of everybody's diverse backgrounds," says Fohl.
It helps make Peace Stories sound as pure as snowflakes, with highlights such as Andersson's soaring, melodic violin and angelic vocal on "O Come All Ye Faithful," Doucet's graceful picking on "Little Drummer Boy," and Fohl's proud, uplifting vocal on "Peace in the Valley." The album's title track (a 1996 song that Andersson knew, written by a trio of Nashville songwriters) feels like it was expressly crafted for the project. It's a hopeful, utopian vision of a world without war that's especially, sadly relevant this holiday season.
Peace Stories ultimately has a timeless feel born from the acoustic instrumentation, Andersson's violin playing (which imparts a medieval undercurrent), and the sentiment of the songs. It's a welcome antidote to the rampant commercialism that dominates most contemporary musical holiday offerings; witness Wyclef Jean's meandering rap that ruins his new collaboration with Stevie Wonder on a version of "Merry Christmas, Baby," or Sheryl Crow's anemic attempt at "Run, Rudolph, Run." Peace Stories is also a timely reminder to be thankful for the New Orleans music scene, where even during the holiday season, the little drummer boy plays a different beat.
- Theresa Andersson, David Doucet and John Fohl offer Peace Stories for the holiday season.