photos by Andrew Hutchins
We all have our holiday traditions. For some of us, we gather to watch a special movie, share the table for a lavish meal, or fill the house with the aromas of a passed-down cookie recipe. And then there are some of us who, of course, sprinkle our collections with a bit of music—and I’m not talking about going caroling or Mariah Carey. In West Chester, PA, Bodega has been throwing its annual holiday party for the last six years.
I entered Sprout Music Collective, a warm bar venue where you’ll swear the single room expands as more people arrive. This has been the stage for Bodega’s Christmas show for the last two years. The room breathes art from every corner: through their muraled walls, live music thickening the air, local craft beers filling pints, and by the colorful people who come to sip on the cocktail of this environment.
I took a seat at the bar while Bodega finished up soundcheck—one of the few rehearsals they were able to squeeze in as a group. Already entranced in just the snippets of practice coming from the band, the bartender broke from the music to ask me if I needed a beer. He had a thick beard and was sporting a festive Rick and Morty Christmas sweater. Being that I was the only person at the bar, the second bartender came up. We immediately bonded over the fact we both were carrying around a few loose crystals with us that night, but his excitement really turned when he found out this was my first Bodega show.
“This is my favorite night to work,” he said, and went on to explain that he has been friends with the core four of Bodega since his freshman year of high school—back when they were playing coffee shops because everyone was too young to play a venue that served alcohol.
Formed in 2005, Bodega was the diving board for the musical careers of Nick Bockrath (guitar), Max Swan (saxophone), Barney Cortez (guitar, vocals), Steve Lyons (bass), and Jeremy Worthington (drums). Each has continued to pursue musical endeavors in solo projects and groups such as Catullus and Cage the Elephant. Members now are planted all down the East coast, from Philadelphia to Miami.
So the tradition of Bodega’s Christmas-eve-eve is so special because it’s not only the one night of the year that the people who grew up surrounding the band get to see them play together, but it’s also one of the few days of the year members of Bodega are reunited with one another as well. And that, paired with that cliche wisp of Christmas wonder hanging in the air, is a recipe for on-stage magic.
Within an hour, Sprout was packed with a bubbly crowd sharing hugs and how-are-yous. With Cortez having the flu, Philadelphia-born legend Tom Hamilton had stepped up from a sit-in to fixture for the evening. His band Brother’s Past was a centerpiece for the local scene for years before he became a mainstay in a number of jam projects such as Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Band, Ghost Light, and Electron.
“[Hamilton] is not really a stranger to us,” Worthington said. Lyons and Bockrath had both contributed in American Babies, and Lyons more recently in Ghost Light.
Since Cortez is lead vocals on most of their songs, the last-minute substitute scrapped Bodega’s original setlist for that evening. Lyons, along with the rest of the group, didn’t seem too stressed with the sudden change, laughing that part of the fun is that “[the show] is always kind of thrown together.”
The players had soundcheck to assess what songs they collectively knew, and a new setlist was formed. As tradition goes, the first set is heavy ridden with Bodega originals from their 2008 album “Bounce!” and then followed with a set of cover songs.
Deal* (GD cover)
Whipping Post * $
Last dance with Mary Jane* #
Phsyco Killer * # $
Rich Man’s Welfare> * #
Shakedown Street>* #
Cissy Strut (Tease)>
Don’t Stop till You Get Enough> * # $
* with Tom Hamilton on guitar
# with Rick Lowenberg on 3rd guitar
@ with Katie Schecter on vocals
$ with Joe Belack on vocals
Deal, The Grateful Dead
Whipping Post, The Allman Brothers Band
Last Dance with Mary Jane, Tom Petty
Rocky Racoon, The Beatles
Physcho Killer, Talking Heads
Rich Man’s Welfare, Roy Hargrove
Shakedown Street, The Grateful Dead
Cissy Strut, The Meters
Don’t Stop til You Get Enough, Michael Jackson
The night started off with high energy, and the music followed it. Swan’s saxophone poured over rhythm and led the crowd into dual guitar solos from both Hamilton and Backroth. The dance floor was shaking with smiling faces and jaunty dance moves. Some spectators found no other expression for their joy but bouncing up and down with pure excitement: like a kid on Christmas, as the phrase goes. The crowd allowed the music to carry them into the early morning, hardly thinning out.
“This is a perennial event,” Swan explained. “We have the same crowd [each year], and it’s interesting because it’s building its own annual scene. The communal aspect is huge, and the show is really fun. It’s super low pressure for us, so we have a great time.”
People hung around long after the music had finished, not wanting their favorite Holiday tradition to be over quite yet: there were still drinks to order, laughs to share, and time to spend with the faces they may not see again for another year.