The Commons
The Arts

A swinging country-ified Christmas

Sweetback Sisters bring back their sing-along holiday show to NEYT

New England Youth Theatre is at 100 Flat St. Tickets are $15 in advance, and $18 on the day of the show, and can be bought at www.brattleborotix.com. Lyric sheets will be provided for the audience singalong. Find out more information about The Sweetback Sisters at their website, www.thesweetbacksisters.com.

Originally published in The Commons issue #182 (Wednesday, December 12, 2012).


BRATTLEBORO—The Sweetback Sisters’ Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular, with singers Emily Miller and Zara Bode, is returning for its fourth year at the New England Youth Theatre, on Sunday, Dec. 16, at 7:30 p.m.

This popular audience participation show requires only a willingness to sing and a love of holiday music.

Lyric sheets will be provided for the audience singalong. All the songs are presented with the Sweetback Sisters’ signature mix of harmony singing, rollicking Telecaster guitar, and twin fiddling, along with a healthy dose of holiday cheer. The 2011 show sold out.

Bode describes the band’s style as an eclectic mixture of honky-tonk and rockabilly.

“I would call it edgy retro,” she says.

The group takes their inspiration from the Davis Sisters and Louvin Brothers, as well as the spirited honky tonk energy of Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. In this concert, The Sweetback Sisters turn to the canon of Christmas and holiday songs, arranged in a youthful yet nostalgic way.

A few things about the Sweetback Sisters need to be clarified, however.

Although publicized as “Brooklyn’s favorite country band,” the group no longer resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. Miller has moved to the back roads of West Virginia, and Bode has just bought a house right here in Brattleboro.

Nor are Sweetback Sisters Emily and Zara actually blood relations.

Furthermore, they are not sole members of the ensemble.

While the center of group is Emily and Zara, who sing lead vocals and play the guitar (Emily also plays fiddle), they are joined by Jesse Milnes on fiddle, finger-picking guitar and harmony vocals; Ross Bellenoit on electric guitar and harmony vocals; Peter Bitenc on upright bass; and Stefan Amidon on drums and bass vocals.

“Everyone in the band also sings,” says Bode. “It is a pre-requisite for joining. There is three or four part harmony singing, and we let the boys lead the singing on a song or two.”

Brattleboro native Stefan, also a member of his own family band The Amidons, is Zara’s fiancé and one of the most compelling reasons Bode has moved to southern Vermont. But he is hardly the only reason.

“I love New England and have long had a big fan base in Northampton, (Mass.),” she says.

Making the connection

Zara met her fellow lead singer Emily in Germany when trying out for leads in Northern Harmony, an a cappella choir from Plainfield.

“They were on an international tour and needed singers,” Zara says.

The Sweetback Sisters’ Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular actually started because Emily and Zara wanted an outlet to sing one song, the Davis Sisters’ “The Christmas Boogie.” The song is a retelling of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, with a 1950s boogie-woogie twist.

“We do a lot of classic tunes too,” says Bode. “Our band has a background of such diverse musical styles that we have ended with a wonderful eclectic mixture of holiday music.

“We print up booklets of lyrics so everyone can join in. Even people who say they don’t sing end up doing so and having a good time. Most songs people will recognize, but a couple of tunes will be new and we will teach the audience to sing them.”

The band’s fiddler, Jesse Milnes, writes the only original song in the show, The Nine Days of Christmas. The song is a take-off on the Twelve Days of Christmas, infused with the classic country themes heartache and drinking. “It’s really more of a drinking song than a Christmas Song,” explains Milnes. It tells the story of a man left on the first day of Christmas who deals with the stages of grief, loss and acceptance by cooking up a Christmas cocktail and opening up packages for two.

The Sweetback Sisters started the Country Christmas Singalong in 2009. Emily Miller was first inspired to host a singalong while participating in a Christmas charity event in Chicago, and it’s now a tradition capped by the release of an album, The Sweetback Sisters’ Country Christmas Singalong Spectacular (Signature Sounds, 2012).


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