You may not recognize the name, but you might recognize the players. Helmed by Jeff Crawford—who serves as music director for The Gathering Church, a Durham congregation of more than 150—the band behind Christmas Nights includes regular Gathering contributors and Drughorse associates James Wallace, Nick Jaeger, Brett Harris and Mark Simonsen. The contributors all participate in a host of other projects; Crawford and Wallace, for instance, worked on upward of a dozen albums this year as producers and performers. Still, they managed to squeeze in three weeks of intermittent sessions for the Christmas EP after postponing plans for a full-length disc of hymns until 2011.
The 23-minute EP's six tracks are familiar, too. Most are mid-19th-century spirituals long associated with the season, with A.L. Phipps' "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" and a brief original instrumental the two exceptions. "Mostly, they had to be songs about night or expectation—a little more mysterious than 'Joy to the World,'" Crawford says of the song selection. Indeed, both the selections and their inventive yet reverent arrangements are perfectly suited for the fireside on a chilly December evening.
The rotating cast of vocalists lends a feel of community to the project. Mandolin Orange's Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz marvelously duet on "O Little Town of Bethlehem," reimagined as a dreamy, folk-tinged waltz thanks to Wallace's lethargic mandolin sweeps and Jaeger's stretched steel licks. Deliberate and heavy on piano and organ, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is the most Drughorse-like of the bunch, erupting into sing-along choruses after each Crawford-led verse. Harris' chilling lead on "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" perfectly fits the sparse tune, while Josh Moore and Skylar Gudasz turn in a gorgeous rendering of the ever-dramatic "O Holy Night." Faithful to the old-time tradition of The Phipps Family, Simonsen tackles "Beautiful Star" with plenty of harmonies from his wife, Katherine, and the band. This tease is strong enough to make us daydream about 2011, and the promised LP from the same group.