Every Christmas season, I brush the dust off one album that gets spun in its entirety at least once.
I have kept this tradition alive since Merry Axemas – A Guitar Christmas was released in 1997 an album featuring 11 of the all-time great guitarists putting their spin on classic Christmas songs. I bought it for one guitarist alone, but while Alex Lifeson does have some competition for laying down the best song on Merry Axemas, this compilation album offers an all-around outside of the box approach to listening to Christmas music in a manner only attainable via rock music.
Not to worry! The 44 minute Merry Axemas hardly rocks out or shreds so even a curmudgeoning traditionalist can at least appreciate the craft and you just might catch them bobbing their head or tapping their toe.
Merry Axemas Album Review
Kenny Wayne Shepherd starts things off with a pretty straight forward performance of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” but you get the feeling Shepherd wants to open things up a bit which he does halfway through in an impressive jam before returning his focus back on the traditional melody.
Eric Johnson invites you into his personal recital for “The First Nowell” to hear an outstanding take on a true Christmas song that uses the alternative original spelling from Old English of what most of us know as “Noel.”
Jeff Beck records a near haunting arrangement of “Amazing Grace” thanks to the minor chords and use of a background choir. Brian Setzer Orchestra swings up the pace for “Jingle Bells.” It’s a quick song and solid skirt spinner for those who enjoy rockabilly. Joe Satriani does what only Joe Satriani does in “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam,” a seven minute long excursion by way of a slow tempo arrangement of the holiday classic intermixed with Satriani talking through his guitar.
Deep Purple’s Steve Morse, whose father was a minister, keeps it real for “Joy to the World” which he recorded in his home studio. A great multi-layering of the primary chorus before Morse moves “Joy” into a different direction without sacrificing the original message. Steve Vai offers some Peanuts with a rendition of “Christmas Time Is Here” Charlie Brown could appreciate but Lucy might crab about for being too dilatory. Joe Perry of Aerosmith channels Elvis in “Blue Christmas” that takes a welcome melodic turn midway through if you get past the first two minutes.
The quiet opening on “The Little Drummer Boy” keeps this Alex Lifeson gem from easily besting all others so you could argue Johnson’s “The First Nowell” ekes out the top spot. However, Lifeson plays the guitar, bass, and keyboards while programming the drum machine, and recorded this stellar and touching version of “The Little Drummer Boy” in his home studio the day after Rush ended the Test for Echo Tour. So there.
Richie Sambora, who left Bon Jovi in 2013 after 30 years as his lead guitarist, takes a few bars to get “Cantique de Noel (O’ Holy Night)” going but ultimately delivers a quick yet solid song of praise on the guitar. Finally, Tomoyasu Hotei closes out Merry Axemas with “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” which turns the wimpish John Lennon original into a moderate rocker.
Merry Axemas gathers a diverse mix of guitar styles affording each player the freedom to present their interpretation on Christmas classics that aficionados most certainly can appreciate. You probably won’t hear any of these on your local Christmas song radio station but expect a few inquiries from party-goers if you let this one spin to set the mood during holiday festivities.
Merry Axemas Songs:
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Kenny Wayne Shepherd
- The First Nowell – Eric Johnson
- Amazing Grace – Jeff Beck
- Jingle Bells – Brian Setzer Orchestra
- Silent Night/Holy Night Jam – Joe Satriani
- Joy To The World – Steve Morse
- Christmas Time Is Here – Steve Vai
- Blue Christmas – Joe Perry
- The Little Drummer Boy – Alex Lifeson
- Cantique De Noel (O’ Holy Night) – Richie Sambora
- Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – Hotei