Gary Hoey,
Ho! Ho! Hoey: The Complete Collection
(Surfdog, 2003)

What if Santa arrived at your house outfitted in leather and chains, and you watched as he lifted off his mirrored sunglasses once he parked his Harley by the curb? What if his cadre of elves included Eddie Van Halen and the members of KISS, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Metallica? What if someone arranged holiday songs with a hard rock or heavy metal bent?

That would be Gary Hoey, an excellent guitarist in his own right, and technically a one-man band. Here he shows off his arranging skills as well as his fretwork, using a variety of guitars, keyboards and effects. With a few small changes, this two-disc set is generally a compilation from four previous releases: Ho! Ho! Hoey, Ho! Ho! Hoey II, Ho! Ho! Hoey 3 and The Best of Ho! Ho! Hoey. A total of 36-37 songs are included, depending how you count them. More on that, later.

Gone are the robed choirs and angelic tones. They've been replaced by electric guitars and drum machines. At first listen, you might doubt that a hard rocker can get away with performing popular carols and holiday songs; but in most instances, the match really works. Gary changes up the pacing on a few tunes, at times employing a shuffle beat where none was evident before, and that's OK. There's nothing wrong with coming up with new twists on that which is all-too familiar. He also creates new introductions that usually don't provide clues as to the identities of the songs. If you don't have the set list next to you, you have to wait until he gets to the verses to know what's ahead.

This collection is hardly head-banging from start to finish. Offerings range from acoustic pickings to full-blown rockers. Quieter or more peaceful selections are "Little Drummer Boy" (complete with sitar), "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The Christmas Song" (which has that hotel lounge or elevator feel to it), "Silent Night," "Ave Maria" and "Away in a Manger" (which is quite beautiful). Truly raucous tunes include "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Twelve Days of Christmas," "My Favorite Things," "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," "Deck the Halls," "Joy to the World," "Carol of the Bells," "God Rest" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

Lying somewhere in between are "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Jingle Bell Rock," "The First Noel," "Jingle Bells" (which goes country), "Blue Christmas," "Silver Bells," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Frosty the Snowman," "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "Greensleeves," "Winter Wonderland," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," "Feliz Navidad," "White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Happy Xmas," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Auld Lang Syne." Taken as a whole, this is quite an accomplished body of work.

This set includes two previously-unreleased bonus tracks. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" isn't too far removed from what you would expect, and it sounds as though an autoharp might even have been used to strum the chords. Shades of elementary school music class in the 1960s! However, "My Favorite Things" is styled in such a sinister-tinged manner that we envision Linda Blair spinning around the bedroom, not Julie Andrews. That's not necessarily bad, just something different.

The collection is also supposed to contain two original songs written by Hoey himself. "Ho! Ho! Hoey" has a simple, happy and catchy bell-like sound to it, and it's one of my favorites. "Cookies & Egg Nog" is slated to show up on the second disc; but in its place is a second copy of "Joy to the World," which appeared on the first disc. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Gary's version is on the edgier side and is a medley of the two versions of "Joy to the World:" the traditional carol and the Three Dog Night hit. But fans truly expecting "Cookies & Egg Nog" may be a tad disappointed, especially since its title appears on the set list. Where was quality control on this one?

Avid fans might also be a bit peeved that this "complete" collection is missing two songs from Hoey's previous holiday albums. AWOL are "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" from the first volume and "I'll Be Home For Christmas" from the third. So if you desperately need the "complete" collection, you'll either have to buy three discs to do so, or download MP3 files of those two songs to make up for their omission. Don't forget to get "Cookies & Egg Nog" (from the third volume) while you're at it.

In any event, a few more selections deserve special attention. The "Twelve Days of Christmas," according to Hoey, has been pared down to six. After all, when that song is performed as an instrumental, it gets rather boring after the "five golden rings" verse. So at that point, Hoey launches into a rockin' riff that eventually leads into a verse that counts down from 12. It works, once you understand the approach.

"Happy Xmas" is really a homage to John Lennon. It's a nice medley of "Give Peace a Chance" and "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" (i.e., "And So This is Christmas"). This track has turned out to be one of my favorites.

But I give Gary's version of "White Christmas" a thumbs-down. My favorite Christmas song of all time deserves something better than a single electric guitar picking out its melody. This is one of the few times when his arrangement just doesn't do justice to the original.

And two BIG thumbs down go to "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," which contains the only vocals in the collection and transforms Clement Moore's poem into a hip-hop recitation. ("We party with the elves, ho! We party with the elves, ho!") Ick. I heard it twice for the purposes of this review, and I hope to never land on it again. I'll be skipping over that track from now on.

On the other hand, the real jewel of the CD set appears on the second disc: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." If ever there was a perfect song for heavy metal, this is it. I must admit I was hooked when I heard Hoey perform this song live on a local radio station morning show, and that's why I bought this set in the first place. Gary lets his guitar take the place of Thurl Ravenscroft's voice (not that of Boris Karloff, who supplied the narration but not the singing for the animated classic), and even adds strains of the Who-ville hymn "Welcome Christmas (Fah who for-aze)" in the midst of the piece. This is probably one of those renditions that you will either love or hate. I can't get enough of it. I was playing it over and over -- in March.

With a name like "Hoey," this musician was almost doomed to be known for this kind of fare, even though he has released non-holiday albums and has worked with a number of major artists, including Ozzy Osbourne. Is his approach here irreverent? Some might think so. But then, those people probably wouldn't be looking to buy this kind of music in the first place. Ho! Ho! Hoey: The Complete Collection is a great rockin', head-bobbin', toe-tappin' set. It's the perfect background for a party, or for staying alert while driving along a boring snow-covered highway on the way to or from that party, or for bopping around the house in a present-wrapping frenzy on Dec. 24. Trust me: pop in the second disc and play the Grinch song first. Enjoy!

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

29 November 2008

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