Quite understandably, John Hewer is both a little nervous and extra-excited about what started out as an excuse for a drunken party and evolved into one of the city’s best-loved Christmas-season traditions.
When the Georgia Straight rings him at home, it’s eight days before the birthday of Keith Richards, who—against all odds and known medical guidelines—will be turning 76 on December 18. It’s also four days before this year’s edition of Keithmas, which began a decade ago as a small, and appropriately booze-soaked, celebration of both Christmas and the birthday of one of rock’s most beloved showmen.
“If you go back and dig far enough around, the event was not Keithmas in the beginning,” Hewer, who is Keithmas’s cofounder, says with a laugh. “In its initial inception, it was ‘Let’s celebrate Keith Richards’ birthday. And Christmas.’ But by the time the event happened, it was being called Keithmas. I’ll take credit for driving the Keithmas bus—I kept calling the night Keithmas and it just stuck. It was Christmastime, and we wanted a musical hook. We thought, ‘Who are some of our favourite artists?’ and then we checked their birthdays. The first year we had it on Keith’s actual birthday, and ever since then it’s hovered around that time.”
Hewer and event cofounder James Hayden are stoked about this year’s Keithmas because it’s a milestone. The event that started out as a night of debauchery at the Fairview, had a brief stop at the old Electric Owl, and now packs the Rickshaw is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Equally exciting this year is that a first Keithmas will also be taking place in Calgary on December 18, with plans for a Toronto edition in the works.
As always, the event will have a deep roster of gold-star local acts covering Rolling Stones songs, the bands playing for free and proceeds going to charity. As it approaches its first decade on the West Coast, Keithmas has raised over $65,000 for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, with this edition expected to add $20,000 (the biggest amount to date) to that total.
“We never had any grand plans to make money with it, so making it a charity event just made sense,” Hewer says. “It was like, ‘Whatever we do make, let’s pass it on.’ Being able to raise some money is why we had a Keithmas II. It’s pretty weird—after Keithmas we just felt good about it. All the bands volunteered, so nobody got paid—nobody’s ever got paid. But the fact that everyone volunteered and pitched in made us think ‘This is so great that we have to do it again.’ ”
Proud as he is of all past Keithmases, Hewer is particularly happy with this year’s edition, which will include Rich Hope, the Pack a.d., La Chinga, Bison, Dead Ghosts, Frankie, the Wild North, and more.
“I don’t know how to say this so we’re not patting ourselves on the back, but we’re more representative of the population this year,” he says. “We have a stronger representation of women artists, which is really cool, so I’m really excited about that. Also the sheer variety this year is great—the strength from top to bottom is probably the best that we’ve ever had. Not that I would ever say that there was a weak link before, but when you go through things, everyone is a really great artist in their own right.”
As with past Keithmas blowouts, Hewer goes over the set list of each act in advance to make sure that audiences don’t hear six different versions of “Wild Horses”.
“I sort that out right at the beginning,” he says. “It’s a bit of a shitshow—if you’ve ever been party to a band making a set list, well, try 10 bands with various band members chiming in at inopportune times. I’m the keeper of the song list, and we’ve only had one or two arguments over the years. Mostly, the first person to send me the songs they want to do gets to pick, and then we go from there. La Chinga always jumps in early—they’re usually picking their songs in June.
“Mostly, people pick from the classic trifecta,” he continues. “Let It Bleed, Beggar’s Banquet, and Exile on Main Street tend to be where the bulk of songs come from. Still, this year we’re seeing some rather interesting choices. With new bands and new blood in there, they’re moving up into the ’80s. We haven’t had a lot of that action before, which is kind of cool.”
As always, having a Texas mickey of Jack Daniel’s on-stage is part of the festivities, with some kicking their sets off with a shot, and others waiting until afterwards. Often, Hewer says laughing, the bands don’t need another shot.
“Keithmas V might have been the drunkest for bands,” he suggests. “It’s fluctuated with individuals, as well as bands, but with Keithmas V we had a number of musicians sleeping downstairs at the Electric Owl after their performances. The drummer of one of the bands was passed out before the show, and the singer of another passed out afterwards.”
If he’s learned anything as an organizer, it’s that joining each band for a shot of Jack is a recipe for a hangover that no less than ’70s Keith Richards would appreciate. He’s also well aware that the legend of Keithmas continues to grow each year—bad news for your liver, but good news for those who want to celebrate the music of a legend while contributing to a great Christmastime cause.
“Every year we’re selling out earlier,” Hewer says. “This year we raised the ticket prices, and still sold out two weeks ago. And the second we sold out, I started getting texts asking for tickets. But I guess it’s a great problem to have.”
Keithmas X takes place at the Rickshaw Theatre on Saturday (December 14).