When the world went into lockdown last year, the presumed silver lining was that we’d all have enough free time to complete those personal projects that life’s daily obligations previously kept getting in the way of. That’s not quite how it played out for everyone, of course, but some people did manage to peel themselves off the couch and away from their seventh rewatch of The Office long enough to get something done.
In the case of veteran Tucson Latin rockers the Jons, it was finally realizing an idea the band had been kicking around for nearly half its existence: recording a Christmas album.
“We’d been talking about it for so long. I’m talking maybe 10 years,” says drummer James Peters. “Everybody does it. All the big bands do it. We thought we should do it because it’d be funny for a Tucson band to do a Christmas record.”
For fans of the band, which formed two decades ago when its founding members were just out of high school, the project must’ve also seemed long overdue: The Jons’ holiday shows at Club Congress have become an annual tradition. Capturing the spirit on record just made sense. So, in the not-so-holly-jolly month of May 2020, the septet convened at Peters’ home studio and attempted to conjure some Yuletide cheer, revamping 10 holiday classics in the band’s energetic, horn-heavy, genre-jumping style. A Very Jons Christmas arrived on Bandcamp and CD last November—a gift for fans at the end of an exceedingly difficult year.
But with the pandemic surging, there was no possibility to do a show to celebrate it. The band livestreamed a few performances to push the album, but it didn’t feel nearly the same. That makes the upcoming return of the A Very Jons Christmas concert—which this year graduates from Club Congress to the larger Rialto Theatre—both something of a delayed album release show and a homecoming for the band, which hasn’t played a headlining gig in Tucson since its last Christmas show in 2019.
“We were like, ‘All right, it’s time to try to book something in Tucson again,’ and that’s when the Christmas show came up,” says singer-trumpeter Jon Villa. “Why not come back with one of the happiest shows ever?”
In fairness, “happiest show ever” could describe most of the shows the Jons play. Spreading good vibes is pretty much the band’s whole mission. Growing up together in Nogales, Arizona, Villa, Peters and the since-departed Sergio Mendoza started the Jons in 2000 after reconnecting in Tucson. (Villa insists the name was a mutual decision.) Initially, the idea was to sound like “a Latin version of the Beatles,” but as the lineup expanded, the approach became much more eclectic, leaping from salsa and cumbia rhythms to ska, punk and pop, all while keeping the party energy high. Members have come and gone, and in some cases come back, but the Jons have stayed a Tucson music institution for 20 years, even as other commitments have made hometown gigs increasingly rare. (Villa, Peters and bassist Javier “Escubi” Gamez tour with Phoenix cult favorites Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, while Peters also drums in ex-member Mendoza’s “indie mambo” project Orkesta Mendoza.)
So yeah, if anyone in the city is equipped to wring fresh fun out of some hoary old chestnuts, it’s probably these guys.
A Very Jons Christmas is, indeed, a very Jons-style Christmas album. While the band’s holiday live sets have consisted of covers and covers-of-covers, for the recording, the band set out to create all-new arrangements of traditional classics. True to form, the album takes several stylistic zigzags. “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” both get slinky, uptempo makeovers, bringing to mind images of spending the holiday at a Mexican resort rather than a snowed-in cabin. The instrumental take on “Little Drummer Boy” is similarly sweltering, propelled by twangy surf guitars, while “Here Comes Santa Claus” starts with
department-store piano before exploding into a chugging, almost snarling punk interpretation. (In between, there are a few partially improvised skits, made up mostly of band in-jokes—and some bleeped curse words.) But it never sounds like 10 different bands playing 10 different songs. Held together by the vibrant horn section and Villa’s velvety croon, it only sounds like the Jons.
The songs will make their live debut this week at the Rialto, a show that’ll also feature cameos from other Tucson musicians, as well as solo sets from Roger Clyne and Jons keyboardist Paul Jenkins. It’s another small gift for what was once again an exhausting year—but this time around, it’s not just for the fans, but the band, too.
“The people that are going out to shows, they just want to let loose. They want to forget about all the restrictions we’ve had for the past two years or whatever, and they just want to go out and have fun and listen to music and have a good time,” Villa says. “And, well, us as a band kind of want the same thing.” ■