ARCHIVE: It Must Be Saint (Burt)nik

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Trans-Siberian Xpress: Glen Burtnik pictured on Euro-tour with The Orchestra. The man with the hair of many colors brings the 2009 edition of his long-running Xmas Xtravaganza to the stage of the Count Basie on Saturday night. (Photo ©Jane Wilkinson)

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit December 16, 2009)

Santa Claus — Glen Burtnik. Two guys who rely upon the element of surprise, even as they evidence a surprising reliability.

With Saint Nick, of course — particularly that office party, Secret Santa side — you never can tell what’s inside the wrapper until you look (maybe something naughty). And no amount of comforting trappings or cliched anthems can ever prepare you for that moment of truth.

As for Saint Burtnik, well, when he throws his annual Xmas Xtravaganza show, there’s never any telling which of his famous friends will come down that figurative chimney. There’s never a set list made public, although things always manage to start on time. And, just in case you thought he’d traded every shred of the punk for the punctual, there’s always the excitement of seeing which vivid hair color he’s sporting this year.

We’re sure that once upon a time, it was good old, sheer atttitude that drove the young rebel into a career as a musician’s musician. It’s a career that saw the Brunswick-based Glen become an honorary Beatle via his starring in the original Beatlemania tour; a member of Styx for years; a hit songwriter (“Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough,” “No More Lies”), a major label solo artist and a go-to guy of the first rank (more on that in a moment).

Once a year, however, Burtnik assembles a can-do crew of helpers and sets up temporary shop inside the Count Basie Theatre for an event that rivals the North Pole operation for industry and generosity of spirit. He’ll be doing it again this Saturday, December 19, as the area’s longest-running Good Samaritan groovefest returns to Red Bank for a third consecutive jinglebell jam.

This is the 19th edition of the Xmas Xtravaganza, an event that began at the Stone Pony in 1989 (keep your slide rule sheathed, Einstein — there were no shows in 1990 or 1991) and would come to make itself at home at venues ranging from NYC’s Bottom Line and BB King’s to New Brunswick’s State Theater.

Still, as the man told us last year, “I love New Brunswick, I love the State Theater, but I have to say that the Basie has been extremely accommodating for us…they have a wonderful staff, a great attitude, and I’m very pleased that a place like this exists.”

As for the element of surprise, those past Xtravaganzas have been notable for the participation of, as we’re fond of saying, everyone from Patty Smyth to Patti Smith— with Max WeinbergDebbie HarryMarshall CrenshawIan HunterPhoebe SnowFred SchneiderJohn WaiteBilly SquierIdina MenzelMatt Pinfield and even John McEnroe among the naughty and/or nice people on whom Burtnik has called in chits and favors. Throw in next-generation Burtnicks BeauDarla Rose andSally —  plus all manner of local choirs and school bands — and the onstage talent can often approach 100 people, even as far greater numbers of needy neighbors benefit from the show’s proceeds and collected donations to food banks and community centers.

Red Bank oRBit interviewed recent Asbury transplant Burtnik last month, just prior to his leaving on one of those uniquely Burtnik-y gigs: an opportunity to front a new touring version of the Electric Light Orchestra on a Polar Express road trip across the seasonally chilly Russian tundra. Read on.

RED BANK ORBIT: Before we get into the Xmas thing, let’s go off topic a little bit — like, all the way to Russia — and find out a little more about this Electric Light Orchestra tour you’ll be doing.

GLEN BURTNIK: It’s actually The Orchestra — after Jeff Lynne dismantled the group, about five years later some of the other guys formed a band called ELO Part II. About 15 years ago, I subbed for the bass player in the band on one tour. But Jeff came along and decided that they couldn’t call it ELO, especially since Universal had asked him to put the Electric Light Orchestra name on one of his solo albums.

So who’s in The Orchestra then? Richard Tandy, Bev Bevan, any of those guys? And do you do the lead vocals?

The only guys from the classic lineup of the band are Mik Kaminski, the lead violin player, and Lou Clark, who was the arranger for a lot of those years. I share vocals with two other guys; the guitar player Phil Bates and one of the keyboard players. But I get to do some of my favorite songs, like “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Do Ya.”

I picture The Orchestra and all their gear packed aboard a train, chugging through the wintry Russian countryside.

Like something out of Doctor Zhivago, right? Nothing that romantic, I’m afraid. But we may be rolling into New Jersey — we might possibly play Atlantic City in April of next year.

It’s funny, now that I’m living in Asbury Park, I spend so much of my time in a band that tours all over the world — to the detriment of my activity on the local scene. Twenty years ago, I’d sell out the Stone Pony with a solo gig, but now, even though I love Asbury, I feel that I’ve kind of been neglecting it.

Well, you make up for it in a big way with the annual Christmas show. So what’s new and exciting here in 2009?

What’s new is that I’m in Russia six days before I’m supposed to be doing the show! This will be our third year at the Basie, the nineteenth anniversary of the Christmas shows overall, and, well, it’s good to be busy.

Every year it seems we go through this routine where I ask you for a hint at who’s expected to show up onstage…

And I tell you only that we have a wonderful cast of characters. I never announce the guest performers beforehand; I always wanted the show to have its own cachet, bigger than Patti Smith or Debbie Harry or whoever else stops by. And a lot of celebrities get turned off by people who use their names to promote something that they’re donating their time to.

I ask all the musicians to play for nothing, you know. Their time is valuable, and sometimes when the show is going on I take a step back and I can’t believe I’m working with these people.

I know you’ve had a lot of repeat participants, like Kimberley Dahme, but has anybody been with you all throughout the years?

Tony Shanahan and Mark Sacco have always been there for me — Bernie Brauswetter, who you know passed away a couple of years ago, played with us for a number of years there. I’m very friendly with a lot of the folks who take part in these shows, but I’m ashamed to say that I only see them once a year in a lot of cases. It’s kind of a social experiment.

I can’t imagine you all get much of a chance to rehearse these shows, but it’s a real testament to the level of skills that you’re working with, that it all comes together so smoothly.

The smooth part is purely in the eye of the beholder — I never feel like I’m going about things in any kind of organized fashion, and things happen like the scenery not showing up at the venue, or one of the musicians showing up late. Patti Smith kept me waiting until the last minute, Phoebe Snow showed up just as her song was coming up, and last year Freedom Bremner got off the train in Red Bank literally just as his song was beginning. It was a Christmas miracle!

Well, if you can’t tell our readers about this year’s lineup, can you at least clue us in on what color you’re gonna dye your hair?

I could tell you that, but then of course I would have to kill you. No, I haven’t decided yet — everyone expects me to do something different each year, and then I spend the following six weeks after the show walking around in fading, ridiculous hair. Walking around Asbury Park in pink hair, sending out whatever signal that sends out.

Well then surely you could tell us which charity you’re playing for this year?

The great thing is that these shows raise a lot of money for a lot of different charities. The Food Bank of New Jersey has been our longest-running beneficiary, and we’ve been doing a lot with the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick. Now we’re able to send money all over the place; to the Boys and Girls Club of Monmouth County — they say charity begins at home, so we like to keep it toward children, and hungry people in the local area.

That’s the other great blessing about these events, apart from being able to work with all of these people — being able to write these checks to these organizations. It makes it all worthwhile.