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Concert Review: New Heart for Christmas 9 featuring Kill Hannah in Chicago, IL December 20-22, 2012

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Starting early on December 18, 2012, Facebook and Twitter feeds around the United States, and even crossing oceans, began filling up with messages of excitement as travelers embarked on an annual (and for some, their first) trip to Chicago. Others who were unable to make the trip wished their friends safe travels and requested that their friends “have lots of fun and take lots of pictures for me.” For the ninth year since they started, Chicago rockers Kill Hannah would be hosting their annual New Heart for Christmas weekend—the first of which was held in 2002—drawing fans from all around the world. For me, it would be my second year attending and I couldn’t have been more excited. With promises of an “epic weekend,” “a weekend to be remembered,” and with the return of Jonny Radtke to the band’s line-up, following four years working on his own projects, the anticipation was even greater.

The first New Heart for Christmas was held in January, 2002 and definitely would not have been called an “event.” That first show was little more than any other hometown show they’d played to the Chicago audience, save for being given a name—New Heart for Christmas, taken from a song off their Atlantic Records release, For Never and Ever—and having a holiday theme. At no point in that first performance did anyone imagine what they were doing that night would eventually grow into the massive pilgrimage it is today. Today, fans from around the world converge on the city of Chicago, taking over its hotels, transit systems, and concert venues and calling the city home for a weekend.

Each year, the band sets out to improve upon what they did for the previous year, with new activities for ticket holders to enjoy. With his Raccoon Society blog firmly affixed to the Fuse television network’s website—and, at one point, the most popular of the celebrity contributor blogs featured on the site—2009 gave fans the opportunity to chat live with Kill Hannah frontman Mat Devine and his special guest singer/songwriter (then frontman of The Academy Is…) William Beckett in what was dubbed “Raccoon Society Live.”

A stint with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark pulled Devine away from the Kill Hannah stage in favor of the bright lights of Broadway in 2010. They picked the tradition up again in 2011 and VIP pass holders were invited to the JBTV recording studios as the band shared the stories behind writing the songs and their own personal experiences with the songs, with fans, and with other bands. The episode featuring the 2011 performance can be found here on the JBTV website and more clips can be found by searching Kill Hannah on the site.

2012 was the band’s biggest outing to date. It was expanded from what had been a two-day event into three, offering three different ticket packages—$20 getting fans in for the House of Blues public show on Saturday night and working up to a $100 “Ultimate Fan” package, awarding fans various gifts and privileges in addition to admission to the shows—to see the band perform.

The setlists for all three shows were similar—building each night from seven songs at JBTV to 10 the following night at Crimson Lounge and an outstanding final list of 18 songs for the main event show on Saturday, December 22—despite their similarities, each performance was uniquely special, from acoustics to unreleased tracks to costumed characters.

The weekend began with a return to the JBTV studios for what was billed as a private rehearsal and Q&A on December 20. The band performed seven songs for the intimate 80-soul crowd before answering questions submitted by attendees. The questions ranged from inquiries about the future of the band to the members’ favorite flavors of cereal (Cheerios, Boo Berry and Raisin Bran along with Devine’s declaration that “cereal is disgusting”). The answers not only gave a glimpse into their plans and their minds but the atmosphere of the conversation really brought out the family vibe that is so well-known among Kill Hannah fans and “casual observers” from around the music industry. Singer Adam Blair of Dot Dot Dot (one of the main event’s four supporting acts) summed it up in a way that so many have said before him; coming to a Kill Hannah concert is less like being at a gig and “more like attending a family reunion.”

The rehearsal setlist included a cover of the David Bowie/Queen collaboration, “Under Pressure.” They had originally recorded the track in 2007 for the soundtrack of the movie The Invisible and had been joined on the recording by another Chicago artist, Preston Graves of Cupcakes. After Graves mysteriously disappeared from the JBTV studio, the band joked that it was all an elaborate ruse to bring Axl Rose into the performance before Blair stepped in to fill Graves’ shoes—a special, unplanned treat for the fans attending that session. When an unavoidable glitch delayed the following night’s performance by nearly 90 minutes, fans who had attended the first night quipped “Who’s Axl, now?” and waited (mostly) patiently for the men who had assembled them there. Also on the setlist for the first performance of the weekend was “Race the Dream,” “He Believes in Time Machines,” “Goodnight, Goodbye,” “Nerve Gas,” “New Heart for Christmas,” and a cover (with Blair contributing his vocals) of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” originally performed by the Band Aid collective in 1984.

The Crimson Lounge acoustic set on Friday, December 21, opened with an unreleased track, “Falling in Love Will Kill You,” set to be included on Devine’s solo EP, due to the public in February, 2013 (watch this space for a review when that time comes). The idea was an intimate, parlor performance but it wasn’t long before the high energy Devine and his ADHD could no longer be corralled and he began climbing on the furniture, trying periodically to convince his counterparts to follow suit. For the band’s uncharacteristic ballad, “Promise Me,” everyone except for Devine and guitarist Dan Wiese moved to the back of the stage; the two remaining members executed a heart-wrenching performance with a chorus of 160 enthusiastic back-up singers (in the audience).

The rest of that performance included “They Can’t Save Us Now,” “Hummingbirds the Size of Bullets,” “Goodnight, Goodbye,” “Raining All the Time,” “Living in Misery,” “10 More Minutes With You,” “Nerve Gas” and “Lovesick,” and was followed by a meet and greet and silent auction of band memorabilia with proceeds going to benefit the survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting earlier in the month. Among the memorabilia was a jacket belonging to bassist Greg Corner which had survived the bus fire that nearly claimed the lives of the band members in the Swiss Alps in 2008 and the two remaining pieces of the organ Devine destroyed in making the video for “Promise Me.”

With three opening bands and a DJ presence from RKTR, Saturday’s main event got underway promptly when doors opened at 6:00 p.m., with fans still coming in. During November, Kill Hannah and Do312.com had organized a contest for unsigned and independent bands to vie for the first opening spot—more about the contest here—and Chicago area group Blood Red Boots celebrated their win first on stage. Next, screamer-core rockers The Action Blast powered through their set while the crowd murmured with wonder over the awkward fit. “They were good for what they were,” commented one fan after the night had ended, “and I’ll probably check out more their stuff, but they just didn’t fit with everything else.”

Continuing on with the Chicago rock natives, Dot Dot Dot took the stage following The Action Blast and were a much less abrasive contrast to the sound fans had come out in droves to hear from the headliners. Which makes sense, given the history between the two bands as (Dot Dot Dot singer) Blair revealed he had performed with Corner (Kill Hannah bassist) when the two were in high school together. I was new to the band—to all of the opening bands, in fact—but easily found a comfortable place in the energetic and charismatic music they were sharing with the family they’d been invited into.

The question that comes up when we pilgrims tell “outsiders” what we are doing—that we have saved for 11 months and are now dropping all of that which we have saved into a journey to Chicago to see a mere concert—is, Why? Why would you spend that kind of money for something so trivial, to see just one band? It’s not even a festival. They are slightly more accepting of someone traveling for Lollapalooza, Coachella or Bamboozle but to see one band, that is more than most people can wrap their heads around. Alicia from Arizona echoed Blair’s sentiment, “The term I kept using to describe it to anyone that asked me about it was ‘family reunion.’ I had never experienced it for myself, and it was so exciting knowing that I would get to be a part of that, finally.”

Rachael from Ohio continues by saying, “I’m a fan of many bands but Kill Hannah in my experience, has the most dedicated and genuine fans in the world. I’m not just a fan of the band but a fan of the fans.” For so many fans, it is about the concert, about the music, about the band but that is all secondary to why they are really traveling all that way and spending all that money. They are really there to see people they have come to know as family and enjoy some music as an aside.

As Kill Hannah took the stage for the final time that weekend and the crowd present erupted into cheers, we were all reminded of the music that had brought us together from around the world in the first place. The energy of a Kill Hannah performance is immense in any venue in every city they visit. But New Heart for Christmas is their yearly opus. Corner told one fan, they put every dollar of profit from the event into funding it for the following year. They do it out of a sense of devotion to the music and to the fans; it is only fair we as fans give that same level back to them.

The setlist was stellar and couldn’t have been more varied. They pulled songs from every album the band has officially released under the Kill Hannah moniker (save for 1996’s The Beauty in Sinking Ships, which falls into a strange limbo area between In a Jar UK, an early Devine solo project, and Kill Hannah, with many of those songs slated to soundtrack the abandoned Breakfast Club sequel). Fans young and old, the newly introduced and the tried and true, knew every word, every note. For some fans this show also marked the return of Radtke to lead guitar after four years away from the band; for others it was their first time seeing the “classic Kill Hannah line-up.”

Kill Hannah may not be media sensations—or even anything remotely close to it—but they have, as Rachael from Ohio pointed out, one of the most dedicated and unique fan bases you are going to find anywhere. There are few other acts, regardless of their level of media or label representation—Kill Hannah is also presently without label representation of any kind—who can consistently draw in the support the band does for their New Heart for Christmas event, without a supporting tour, without a new album, and without having either of those things for three, going on four years.

The New Heart for Christmas 9 weekend event is and will continue to be a chance for the most devoted, most dedicated fans to see their favorite band play their biggest show of the year and meet so many others like them. It is an opportunity for people who have emailed, snail mailed, Skyped and phoned themselves into “BFF” status to finally meet one another face to face and in the flesh. It is an opportunity to see a band who is so in tune with their fans that their singer can wave his hand across the crowd and say, “This front row here, this is my Twitter feed,” and perform songs that hold such deep meaning both to them and to their hometown fans. These opportunities do not come along every day and not only am I intensely grateful that I have been able to experience it twice but I encourage anyone who comes across a similar opportunity—be it Kill Hannah’s New Heart for Christmas or something your own favorite bands put together—that you do it with no regrets.

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About D. Gabrielle Jensen

D. Gabrielle Jensen is a writer, cosmetologist and amateur photographer - not always in that order - who wants to live in several major cities, feels most at home in general admission at a small concert venue, and dreams of touring with a band as their private stylist and tour blogger and of honing her photography skills. She has tattoos handwritten by three of her music idols and hopes to continue the collection.