The legendary jangle-pop band The dB's have played Cat's Cradle just once in the club's current Carrboro location, open since 1993.
That show was in 2007, and it was the last date The dB's made during two spurts of high-profile reunion gigs split among New York, New Jersey, Chicago and North Carolina, where founder Chris Stamey and longtime member Peter Holsapple both now live. On Thursday, The dB's will return to the club, reforming to play just eight songs for the fifth annual Christmas at the Cradle.
"We have a tradition of doing Christmas shows. We have a Christmas record, and we have a lot of songs written," says Stamey, explaining the band's surprising gig choice. "Christmas makes us jointly sing of our hometown. We all grew up together and have been playing together since we were in short pants. It gives us a hometown feeling together."
But that's only part of the explanation: Christmas at the Cradle is one of the hallmarks of Trekky Records, the label founded nearly a decade ago by a handful of area high school musicians. In that time, Trekky has released nearly 40 albums, created its own music festival and—perhaps most important—fostered an environment of goodwill and collaboration among local musicians, no matter the genre.
During the last five years, nearly 50 bands have played Christmas at the Cradle. Whether they're playing experimental folk or retrenched indie rock, it's somehow all become part of Trekky's inclusive aesthetic.
"Although most of their bands and aesthetic lean towards the indie and the pop, Will Hackney and Martin Anderson have never been anything other than champions and fans of local music of all kinds," says Aaron Smithers of the label's co-founders. Smithers shouts and mauls a two-string bass with In the Year of the Pig. The band's Teutonic noise rock is as far outside of the Trekky wheelhouse as acts come, yet they're covering a tune from acoustic guitar mastermind John Fahey—and another from Jim Henson's Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas—for this year's celebration. Smithers trusts that the crowd can handle it.
"They can present things that may be a little further outside the tastes of some of the Trekky audience and people will listen with open ears," he says. "That's a very hard thing to do, and it's to their credit."
As with everything Trekky does, a handful of principles—friendship, community and the unexpected—have guided the growth of the label's seasonal tradition. The dB's appearance, for instance, is the by-product of Stamey working with members of the larger Trekky network. Ari Picker formed one Trekky mainstay, Lost in the Trees, after leaving another, The Never. This summer, he worked closely with Stamey on a forthcoming record by Raleigh band The Rosebuds. Hackney later recorded mandolin parts for the same album. When it came time to recruit bands for this year's Christmas show, Hackney sent Stamey a simple inquiry. Between producing several records and orchestrating a live two-night tribute to Big Star's third album, Stamey didn't think he had the time.
"At first, he said, 'I can't do this.' Then he changed his schedule around and was like, 'I'd love to do this,'" says Hackney, who calls Stamey, Holsapple and Mitch Easter, one of the band's slated special guests for Thursday, heroes. "Then he said, 'I think I might get all of the dB's together.' That was his suggestion."
Stamey's idea is but another surprise for a posse that seems to foster them. When Trekky hosts a show, it strives for more than stand-and-deliver rock concerts, whether that means hosting more than a dozen acts all day at a biofuel plant or stacking a CD release party with special guests and personal favorites. For Christmas at the Cradle, The Love Language's Stuart McLamb has dressed like Jesus, Des Ark has covered Bruce Springsteen and Whatever Brains have converted yuletide favorites into punk anthems.
"Something we like about the shows is that we're asking bands we like and respect to do holiday or winter music, and we encourage them to change their lineup, add guests or do something different. Bands get really excited in that process," says Anderson. "You spend so much time during the year rehearsing your set, touring and playing the same set over and over again, it's a fun prompt to have to change the way you do it all."
"You can have your friends and your girlfriend play tambourine, and it's not a weird thing," echoes Hackney. "It's like, 'Yeah, include everyone.'"