A Christmas Carol

Sit on his lap and tell him what you want for Christmas: Matt Sabatella fills music lovers' wish lists
Melissa Jones

Christmas is always crunch time at the North Pole: a season of harried elves, rushed production schedules, and last-minute route changes. In other words, one big nightmare for the big man. But Santa isn't the only one pulling off a miraculous delivery this year. He's joined by local musical hero Matt Sabatella, who somehow managed to arrange and master a quirky compilation of Christmas rock songs called Do Something! in three weeks -- and without a single elf.

Sabatella first conceived of the disc a couple of months ago. Though actually that may be overstating the case. His original idea was far humbler. He simply wanted to include a song called "The Gift," recorded five years ago by singer Diane Ward, on his new Website, Slipstream Presents (www.slipstreampresents.com). The song, which features some 50 South Florida musicians, was originally sold to benefit the Riccardia Children's Program. Sabatella realized that he had an old Yuletide song of his own knocking around as well, called "Christmas With You." He decided to include both tunes on the Website as a way of saying "Merry Christmas" to browsers.

It occurred to him that perhaps his little holiday ditty could do someone some good, too. Then again, how much good could just one song do? That's when Sabatella made a fateful decision. The week of Thanksgiving, he e-mailed a couple dozen of his musically inclined friends, asking them if they wanted to contribute a holiday song for a charity disc. "When I first asked people, I wasn't sure how they'd respond," says Sabatella in his deep, ruler-even voice. "Not many people I know are fond of Christmas music. I told people to just send me whatever they could. Even if you sing it into a boom box, give it to me."

To his utter amazement 18 of the musicians delivered him tracks within a week. Still don't believe in miracles? Eight of the tunes were written, arranged, and recorded specifically for the compilation. "Up until two weeks ago, I didn't even know if I was going to have 4 tracks or 22 tracks," says Sabatella, shaking his head.

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Much of the reason for this windfall has to do with Sabatella himself. With his fluffy brown locks and a few days' growth of beard, he might as well have the word musician stenciled across his forehead. In fact, Sabatella has played with a whole slew of South Florida artists, most notably Amanda Green. He got his career kick-started back in 1995, playing for the popular Broward band the Broken Spectacles. His next outfit, called simply Sabatella, focused on his own songwriting. His 1997 solo debut, Where the Hell Am I?, was a critically lauded collection of melodic rock. (Sabatella hopes to record a new album early next year.)

His current labor of love is the establishment of Slipstream Presents. The Website is an attempt to make local music available for Liquid Audio downloading on the Internet. He says the site is "as good as any record label but without having any contracts." Sabatella's hope is that, by having music for sale on Slipstream Presents, local recording artists can gain some exposure beyond South Florida without getting mired in a record contract, which promises nothing and, more often than not, delivers.

Sabatella says he hopes Do Something! will serve the same purpose: exposing listeners to the remarkable range of talent in South Florida. He says he was astounded when he listened to the recordings, which were delivered to him in the form of DATs, CDs, and cassettes. He spent hours hunkered down in North Miami's Dungeon Recording Studio, mastering the songs. In some cases he was listening to the songs for the first time as he mastered them.

The artists themselves were surprised by how much creativity the impending deadline spurred. "Four days before my song was due, I wrote the verses," says Diane Ward, who contributed the tune "Everyday's Christmas," performed with guitarist Jack Shawde. "Two days before the track was due, I wrote the bridge and titled it. The day before we delivered it to the studio, we recorded and mixed the track at [Jack's] house. This is one of the fastest writing/recording/release experiences I've done. It's also one of my favorite songs to date."

Sabatella calls Do Something! "the coolest Christmas album I've ever heard," which shouldn't be taken as empty hype. The disc is a far cry from the treacle and mush of traditional Christmas recordings. Forget Whitney and Mariah. The only consistent quality of this compendium is unorthodoxy. Among the ten interpretations of Christmas classics are Zac's wildly imaginative, voodoo-chant version of "Jingle Bells" titled, more appropriately, "Jingo Bells." Amanda Green weighs in with a gorgeous a cappella rendition of "Greensleeves." One of the more remarkable tracks is "Ave Maria" interpreted beyond recognition by A Kite Is a Victim. The tune is as hypnotic and textured as they come. Equally gratifying is the Mitch's inventive, giddy instrumental version of "Silent Night." Other tracks include veteran rock outfit Sixo performing a cover of John Lennon's "War Is Over," a song perfectly suited for frontman Rene Alvarez's rasp.

The other eight contributions are originals, including piano balladeer Noodles on Jupiter's stirring composition, "The Ghost of Christmas Past," complete with background dialogue lifted from the Dickens classic. Then there's Sabatella's own "Christmas With You." The song, which consists solely of lush barbershop harmonies, is a major departure from Sabatella's anthemic guitar chords and driving rhythms. Ward's "Everyday Is Christmas" shines with wistful melodies and full-throated vocals. Trophy Wife's haunting original, "My Love," raises more than a few goose bumps as lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist Karen Feldner provides mournful vocals over drip-drop guitar.

The compilation, of course, is not without its playful side. Sabatella includes a friend's five-year-old sister singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in Spanish. The Rudy XXXMas Choir's track, "I Love Santa," written in the spirit of a drinking song, has a playful but rather unappetizing story line -- unless, of course, you like stories about a drunken Santa going poop in the family eggnog. Singer Robbie Gennet explains: "We wrote our song because of an incident that happened one Christmas when band member Howard Goldberg found something floating in the eggnog at his family's home." One can only wonder what the outcome would have been if Santa left a sinker, rather than a 'floater.'"

With a stocking full of terrific songs, Sabatella's next duty was to decide to which organization he should donate the project's proceeds. He thought of asking contributors to choose their own charities but wisely foresaw complications. The only thing Sabatella knew for sure was that, in light of such recent events as the massacre at Columbine High School, he wanted to help America's young people. "In all the talk that goes on after something like that, all the adults have their theories, but nobody's really listening to what the kids feel is wrong. They're probably the ones who know the most," he reasons.

He considered giving whatever money he raised to VH1's Save the Music Foundation, which helps fund the music programs of financially stressed American schools. But ultimately Sabatella wanted an agency that dealt more directly with kids. "I had a great family structure," Sabatella says. "And that was very important to my development. My parents, my brothers -- we all loved each other. If every kid had that, I don't think the situation would be as bad as it is."

Sabatella discovered a worthy charity while browsing for info on the Save the Music Website, an organization called the Alliance For Youth. The organization's goal is to aid agencies such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which create more interest in today's youth. When Sabatella contacted the group, a representative suggested he act more locally by donating funds to the Mentoring Resource Center, the Alliance's lead agency in South Florida.

Because of a shortage of time and money, Sabatella has been able to burn only a couple hundred CDs so far, many of which he sold at the disc's release party last week at Blue Note Record Store in North Miami. This disc is also available, for $10, on Slipstream Presents, where the tracks can be sampled. (Individual songs can also be downloaded for 75 cents apiece). If demand is great enough, Sabatella will press more copies of the disc.

Indeed he's so encouraged by the compilation's outcome that he's considering other musical charity projects for the future, ones that wouldn't necessarily tie in with Christmas. Does this mean that there won't be another Do Something! next year?

"Well, I did put 'Volume One' on the cover," Sabatella says, smirking. "I'd love to do it again next year. But I'll know next time to start it much earlier."

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