Sound Scene Express

‘Tis the Season: Local Acts Collaborate on Ray Charles Christmas Cover for Light of Life Charity

By Melanie Stangl
Photo courtesy of Carson Camp

With Christmas just around the corner, the giving spirit is in the air, and Pittsburgh’s musicians are not immune to it. Bassist-around-town Anton DeFade has pulled together an impressive roster of local musicians, including the Steeltown Horns and three members each of The Commonheart and Buffalo Rose, to release a timely cover of the Ray Charles classic, “That Spirit of Christmas.” All proceeds from the song will be donated to the Light of Life organization, a local Christian charity which assists Pittsburgh’s homeless and hungry with shelter, food, and work training programs.

“Everything came together really fast, and I’m actually still shocked that we were able to pull it off,” says DeFade.  “It was one of those things that I had the idea for it, and was kicking myself for not thinking of it a month or two in advance.” Clinton Clegg of The Commonheart, who sings lead on the song, agrees. “It came together so fast. Once I said yes, he was like, ‘All right man, be at this address at this time, ready to sing.’ It was great!” Somehow the stars (and schedules) all aligned, and after just two days each of recording and mixing, the song was ready. “I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out,” says DeFade.

Clegg, Mike Minda, and Shawn McGregor from The Commonheart were recruited for lead vocals, guitar, and drums, respectively. Shane McLaughlin, Lucy Clabby, and Mariko Reid also contributed to the song with the three-part vocal harmony that pervades the sound of their folk band, Buffalo Rose. As a substitute for the string section in Charles’ original, DeFade recruited his bandmates in Steeltown Horns—Reggie Watkins (trombone), JD Chaisson (trumpet), and Rick Matt (saxophone.) Stan Kelja footed the recording, mixing, and mastering work at Heid Studios in Aspinwall, while Carson Camp of Base Camp Productions stepped up to film and edit an accompanying video and take a cover photo (“all of which he did in a seemingly impossible time frame,” Defade points out.) DeFade himself provided bass and produced the track, along with Chaisson and Kleja. “As a bassist in Pittsburgh, I get to do a lot of freelance work with a ton of different musicians in many different genres of music,” he says.  “It’s a goal of mine to start releasing more collaborative recording projects, because I really enjoy connecting people and seeing how different musicians gel with each other.”

In this case, the answer is “quite well.” The Pittsburgh version of “That Spirit of Christmas” is a beautifully layered, soulful rendition of an underrated classic. We’re brought in with a bass solo from DeFade that gives a melodic hint at what’s to come. Charles’ lyrics are sentimental and lovely without veering into the saccharine (“Hearts are growin’ full of joy/Sense the gifts that we’re giving/And the love that we’re living”), and Clegg’s voice does a lot of work bringing that genuine heart to the forefront. The addition of the three-part harmonies from Buffalo Rose adds gorgeous texture as well, both with their background “ooh’s” and when they sing the words alongside Clegg. They evoke a choir, which is fitting for a Christmas song—the octave jump during “Why can’t it remain, all through the year?” works especially well. The Steeltown Horns provide welcome movement and just enough punch over the subdued, lilting rhythm section, especially during their standalone riff halfway through. Minda’s fingerpicked guitar parts are the perfect finishing touch.

The song is incredibly well-mixed and balanced; to produce something so cohesive with so many parts, in such a short amount of time, is beyond impressive. Subtlety and passion tends to be more difficult than brashness, but these artists and technicians proved more than capable of achieving it. “I’m very grateful to be connected with so many tremendous musicians that constantly push me to be a better musician, and push with me to create awesome music,” says DeFade. “We wanted to put something out together to thank all of our fans for the constant support.”

Of course, the fans won’t be the only ones to benefit from this project. With so many worthy organizations out there, deciding on which charity to donate the proceeds to was tough. “I didn’t want to go with a charity that was purely seasonal like a toy drive, and I wanted to go with an organization that helps homeless people,” says DeFade. “Pittsburgh has a fairly large homeless population, and with the winter coming up, they need all the help they can get.”

Clegg concurs, adding, “We both wanted to give to an organization that has immediate impact. So I reached out to Randy Baumann from the WDVE morning show for some advice, knowing he always has his hand on the pulse of great charities throughout Pittsburgh,” He continues, “[Baumann] suggested Light of Life, Anton researched it and loved it, and we went with it.”

In addition to providing immediate essential needs of shelter and meals to our struggling fellow citizens, Light of Life invests in long-term solutions. “What I really respect about Light of Life is that they go so much further than just providing food and shelter.  They have programs in place that help stabilize the lives of the people that come there,” says DeFade.  “They offer training so that they can work within the organization, and then eventually employment outside of the program is found. I admire the work that Light of Life does to develop life skills for homeless people, so that in turn, they can take control of their own lives.”

Between the creativity and caliber of musicians on this song, and the worthy cause they all worked for, supporting it will be giving both yourself and your community an immediately impactful Christmas present. The single is now available on Bandcamp, with a set-your-own-price feature to let you donate as much as you’d like to Light of Life. Click here to download. For more information about the charity, visit their website. And check out the song’s music video below!

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