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A holiday treat: the Roches.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Angels We Have Heard On High

By Shawn Stone

The Roches

The Egg, Dec. 4

It was a Christmas show we were promised, and it was sort of a Christmas show the Roches delivered on Saturday night in the Swyer Theatre. The sisters were festively dressed: Maggie Roche sported a bright red shawl, and Suzzy and Terre donned the yin and yang of Christmas colors, the former in red and the latter in green. They opened, after a thunderous reception from the almost sold-out room, with “We Three Kings.”

This is a carol that’s as grave as it is joyous, recounting the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem and the gifts they bring for the Christ child, and Suzzy dug into the third stanza: “Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” If one has a moment to reflect, these lines are pretty blunt foreshadowing of the manger baby’s destiny. Except that the Roches, clever devils, cut this moment short. Suzzy paused for a beat after “tomb,” and they launched into “Jingle Bells.” It got a terrific laugh.

It didn’t cheapen “We Three Kings.” That’s not their game. In the Roches’ musical world, the grave and the absurd sit side by side. That’s life; take it or leave it. (And if you recall the story, Jesus skips out of that tomb, too.)

After “Jingle Bells,” they reintroduced themselves to a room full of die-hard fans with “We,” which, for over 30 years, has doubled as calling card (“We—are Maggie and Terre and Suzzy”) and statement of purpose. It’s funny and smart, and allows them to show off the vocal gymnastics and shimmering harmonies that are the thrilling hallmark of their sound.

Their songbook is jam-packed with musical goodies. In the longer, first part of the show, they offered up their own holiday gem, Terre’s “Star of Wonder,” and a comic atrocity, “Winter Wonderland” sung horribly off-key with stereotypical Jersey accents. (They’ve lived in New York City most of their adult lives, but they’re New Jersey born and bred.) Highlights included the plaintive, defeated plea to “Mr. Sellack,” and a cover of their NYC pal Paranoid Larry’s hilarious “No Shoes.” “Face Down at Folk City,” which Suzzy introduced as being written in response to a command to “write a hit,” had real punch; with its odd, retro structure, it still sounds like it should have been a hit for the Association in 1968, not the Roches in 1985. The first part ended with the split- second intricate vocal interplay of “Ing.”

After the break, they continued to dazzle with those crazy harmonies—harmonies that age has only slightly dinged. Like the Boswell Sisters, with whom they share the ability to sound warm one minute and chilly the next, there are times when you can’t tell which Roche is singing which part. Listening to three voices blend like this is better than getting high.

“Hammond Song,” which is about family and choices and sex, hasn’t lost its emotional wallop; “Big Nuthin” had a rueful power—based on experience?—that the original arrangement lacked; and “The Hallelujah Chorus,” performed a cappella of course, was perfectly appropriate. They even had the audience come up on stage for a final seasonal sing-along.

It was like a visit from Santa, only Santa wasn’t a fat guy from the North Pole, he turned out to be three sisters from Jersey. And God—who, as the sisters sang a few times, is undoubtedly a she—blessed us, one and all.

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