Oh, the weather outside was frightful, well, at least for Southern California, which means the temperature dropped down to the low ‘50s. ‘Twas a week before Christmas and all through the House (of Blues), all the punkers were moshing – remember when this venue was next to Mickey Mouse? Yes, that’s right. Saturday night the House of Blues at the Anaheim Gardenwalk hosted the 26th Annual Vandals Christmas Formal.
For those who have never been, it’s a night where The Vandals perform their holiday classic, “Oi to the World,” in its entirety, though not necessarily in order, followed by a collection of their biggest hits.
The Vandals have managed to put on their Christmas Formal nearly every year since 1995. People thought with COVID numbers spiking again, the Orange County punk band would not be able to keep the tradition going, but they proved even a world pandemic could not keep them from their annual tradition. The 25th anniversary was prerecorded last December at Santa’s Village at Skypark and released as a stream, but for the first time ever without an audience. After being forced to do a virtual show last year, the band and fans were equally anticipating the chance to return to a live version in front of an audience.
As if we needed another reminder of the importance to retain safe practices at this time, news broke on Wednesday that Shark Shock, the original openers for Saturday’s show, had their drummer test positive for COVID-19. On the same day, The Vandals announced that OC legends CH3 would be the new opening act.
Fresh off their show a week prior, opening for the Adolescents at Alex’s Bar for their annual holiday show, CH3 was more than ready to take on the challenge playing on just 72 hours’ notice.
The lights went down shortly before 8:30 and CH3 took the stage to a huge ovation. Just as soon as the Cerritos band opened with “Indian Summer” immediately followed by “Separate Peace,” a mosh pit opened up that would last through their entire set. Lead singer and guitarist Mike Magrann was all-smiles Saturday night, looking quite dapper dressed in a vest, tie, and slacks. The band then launched into a ripping rendition of “Catholic Boy“ led by lead guitarist and co-founding member, Kimm Gardner.
During quarantine last year, the band celebrated their 40th consecutive year and they are currently working on a double LP collection of their songs to celebrate the momentous milestone. I was not fortunate or old enough to catch them in their early days playing the Cuckoo’s Nest, but from old footage I’ve watched recently, I’d say the biggest difference is their growth as musicians and performers. Magrann makes a great front-man, joking in between songs and making for an entertaining set. He got serious for one song as he explained the song’s origin being about the Japanese internment camps, which he told the audience several members of his family were detained at. The band then launched into “Manzanar,” the name of one of the most infamous camps. CH3 closed out their set with “You Make Me Feel Cheap” and the popular “I’ve Got a Gun.”
The lights went down just after 9:30 p.m. and a loud cheer rang through the sold-out venue as the crowd waited patiently for the Vandals. As customary every year, an overture track began playing – an orchestral instrumental piece representing bits of each of the 12 songs off “Oi to the World.” The curtains pulled back and Josh Freese on drums, Warren Fitzgerald on guitar, and Joe Escalante on bass began playing “Dance of The Sugarplum Fairies,” another instrumental, though this one faster and more rocking.
The crowd cheered again as lead singer Dave Quackenbush took the stage, and the band launched into “A Gun for Christmas,” the lead track off their holiday album. One thing I love about the Christmas Formal is we get to enjoy the only song that I’ve ever heard Joe Escalate do lead vocals on, a punk take on the Christian hymn, “Here I Am Lord.”
Josh Freese is one of the most talented and therefore most sought after musicians today and has been for several decades. Although he has been the drummer for The Vandals since 1989, he has also been a member of Devo since 1996. He’s also been an official member – or at least toured with – A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, and most recently, the Offspring.
Unfortunately, this means he will have to miss Vandals gigs if he’s touring on the other side of the globe with Sting, which has actually happened several times, as odd as that may sound. Being one of my favorite drummers, it was a relief and blessing to see him being the kid Saturday. I found myself just watching him perform, as I often do when I get the opportunity. There’s a reason why he remains so popular amongst fans and fellow musicians alike.
Quackenbush was ever the hilarious and entertaining front-man who perfectly orchestrates and plays along with the crowd. Constantly asking how much time they had left, or commenting about how exhausted he was, even just a few songs in. But make no mistake – he has plenty of energy and pours it into every song. He introduced “My First Xmas (As a Woman)” as “this is a song I thought was funny when we wrote it about 26 years ago. I apologize for this.” The lyrical content is pretty self-explanatory from the song title and it doesn’t age very well in today’s culture, so I appreciated him recognizing it as such and offering that intro. It’s just a silly song written during a different era and meant as no offense. This was evidenced as just a few songs later they played, “Christmastime for My Penis,” as Quackenbush was supported by Freese’s younger brother, Jason, on saxophone. Jason is a multi-talented musician who can usually be seen playing keyboards on tour with Green Day.
Once the band ran through their holiday jingles, it was time to play some classic hits, led first by Fitzgerald’s guitar-heavy, “Live Fast, Diarrhea.” The Vandals played a collection of their most popular songs, including “Urban Struggle” and “Anarchy Burger,” off their debut EP, “Peach Through Vandalism.” A nice treat for old-school fans, they also played “Flowers are Pretty,” which Quackenbush said they had not played in seven or eight years. The band finished up their regular set with an audience request for “N.I.M.B.Y.” (aka “Not in My Backyard”).
There were only two songs from “Oi to the World” that The Vandals had not played yet that night. They are usually reserved, as they were Saturday, for the encore. Warren Fitzgerald came on alone, accompanied solely by his 12-string acoustic guitar. He played the melancholy, but beautiful, “Hang Myself from the Tree.” It’s one of my favorite parts each year, and Jason Freeze’s saxophone solo in between hit just perfectly. The rest of the band joined them onstage, this time with Quackenbush on guitar and Fitzgerald taking lead vocal duties. The Vandals played their cover of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” with Fitzgerald trashing the stage as per tradition. This included breaking many of the holiday-themed piñatas that had adorned the stage, and breaking and tossing prop presents that been added to the holiday decor. It’s chaotic, it’s hilarious, and all with the soundtrack of one of my favorite punk covers playing in the background as Fitzgerald expertly takes on the role of Freddie Mercury.
As expected, The Vandals then performed “Oi to the World” to a huge pit that joyously moshed along to the punk anthem about solidarity and unifying clashing punk fans on Christmas Day. What was not expected was that they would then end their set by performing their rendition of “So Long, Farewell” from their album “Hitler Bad, Vandals Good.” Yes, that’s right; The Vandals ended the night with a playful, punk rock cover of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic from “The Sound of Music.” Just when you think you’ve got these guys pegged down after about four decades, they go and throw you for a loop.
The City of Anaheim must have been on Santa’s good list this year as a roomful of punk rock boys, girls, and everything in between was treated to one hell of a show!
CH3 and The Vandals provided a very nice Christmas gift for everyone in Anaheim that night!