- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

If you think “The Little Drummer Boy” would sound perfect with a drum solo and backup dancers, then check out the Los Straitjackets Xmas Pageant this Saturday at the Birchmere.

The band’s trademark Mexican wrestling masks would seem cheesy (well, cheesier) if the instrumental-rock veterans weren’t such a tight combo. Lead guitarist Eddie Angel, who in the ‘80s played with D.C. locals Tex Rubinowitz and Switchblade, says they “take what we can from the past and do the best we can with it.”

Their 2002 album “Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets” is loaded with ‘50s and ‘60s rock references: retro but not overly campy. (The real jingle bells sprinkled throughout oddly help keep the CD grounded.)

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is set to the surf classic “Pipeline” with bassist Pete Curry playing the keyboard solo from Del Shannon’s “Runaway” for good measure. Jimmy Lester uses the Dave Clark Five’s rat-a-tat-tat drumming style for “Marshmallow World,” and brings lots of cowbell to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” whose Latin rhythms are clearly a gift from Santana Claus.

“Let It Snow” is patterned ironically after Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” although the best fit here seems to be “La Bamba” overlaid onto “Feliz Navidad.” “What I think happened with this Xmas record is that we had already great songs to work with, so we could spend more time coming up with clever arrangements,” Mr. Angel says.

The live show will be “a mix of Christmas songs and some of our other stuff. And integrated [dance] routines with the Pontani Sisters — a lot of routines that maybe you’d see in a ‘30s musical,” Mr. Angel notes, “but it’s updated.” He also promises “props, leis and Christmas trees.”

Their Scottish friend and stage choreographer, Kaiser George, will be the emcee and will “act very English and slightly disdainful of the rock and roll band that’s performing,” Mr. Angel adds.

One nonholiday song to expect is the Straitjackets’ staple “Sing, Sing, Sing,” a 1930s big-band cover in which Mr. Lester pays homage to Gene Krupa, the man who invented the jazz drum solo. “We all like that [pre-rock ‘n’ roll] stuff,” Mr. Angel says, citing Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle as favorites.

Serious influences for guys who dress like El Santo. “The irony is, we’re serious, too, in a way. We just want to have fun with it.”

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“You have to play the old stuff to give the people something to relate to,” says Nefrit El-Or, the Israeli-born singer/songwriter who is bringing her band to the Iota Bar and Cafe in Arlington on Tuesday.

“Old stuff” means 2003’s “Maya Blue,” the 25-year-old’s sole album to date. It’s challenging stuff: “ambient folk” is probably the closest you’ll get to summing it up. The cryptic lyrics and fragile, trembly vibrato on the opener “Collider” remind one of Tori Amos, although rougher.

“Diary Circumstance” has a tinkly rhythm that adds to its unreal atmosphere. It’s more about mood than about rhythm, and shifting ones at that. Her etherealness here rivals that of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval. Live, she’s far more aggressive, more Ani DiFranco than Tori.

Now the band is concentrating on her newer songs.

“I don’t feel as connected anymore to that album,” she says from her home in Germantown. “I was in a different place.

“When I wrote ‘Maya Blue,’ I still didn’t have the band,” she explains, crediting her two-year association with the group for allowing her to develop a songwriting style and creating “music that’s more interesting rhythmically.”

Growing up, she listened to ‘60s musical artists such as Cat Stevens and Carole King. Later, she favored Joni Mitchell. Since moving to the United States five years ago, she’s been listening to the Dave Matthews Band and Ani DiFranco, among others. Seeing a lot of local bands here has “opened me up more,” she says.

Her newer songs are “more energetic” and not as “open” (i.e., ethereal). She says that one is about how the recent Iraq war recalled memories of being in school with gas masks during the first Gulf War. The new CD, which may be out next spring, will better represent her live sound.

She likens the songwriting process to cooking: “I put down all my influences, and everything is on the shelf behind me. And now I’m baking my own cake with those ingredients.”

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