Ron Lazzeretti: The Heart of a True Collaborator

You remember the story of how Robin and I started going to FitzGeralds, right?  How he lured me there and I went reluctantly, with the promise of meeting this one wonderful musical couple?  

One thing led to another, and between the people in front of the mic, the people behind the bar, and the people running the place, the rest is history.  It remains one of our main musical communities, a spiritual home of sorts.

Within the first few times of going to FitzGeralds, this one night a guy got up and played a song that knocked my socks off.  I obviously have never forgotten that moment, and never have to be too far away from that song, thanks to the magic of the interwebs. You can hear “Long For this World” by Ron Lazzeretti on Spotify, and read the lyrics here.

After he played, I said “What just happened?”  turning to the person next to me.  “Who’s THAT?”   If memory serves, the person I turned to was Scott Momenty, the former FitzGerald’s Open Mic Empressario, who we’d known as drop-ins on Tuesday night through the years.   “Ron Lazzeretti,” he said, simultaneously conveying “duh! welcome to the party!” and admiration for the song we’d just heard.

Within the last few days of 2020 we have witnessed an historic conjunction of planets.  Less visible, but no less powerful, was the conjunction of stars we happened to witness within the first three months of going to FitzGerald’s regularly: Naomi Ashley and Ron Lazzeretti joined forces to create a Christmas Special.  

It would be fun, they thought.  

How could they have known it would be an instant classic?  How quickly it would become one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the holiday season? How much it would mean, to so, so many people?

Now in its 11th year, audiences and artists alike arrange their holiday schedules around Naomi and Ron’s Christmas Special.  The second year, Robin opened the show.  I have been lucky enough to be one of the Christmas Sisters with Naomi and Jodi for about that long.  As an artist, you don’t book anything in December until you know when that show is. And that my friends, is saying something.

Last year, it expanded into two nights.  This year?  Well…you know what happened by now.

Knowing we all likely have a little more time on our hands this holiday season than usual, I thought we all might want to relieve the 2020 Naomi and Ron's Christmas Special.  I know I do; so I invited Ron to share his thoughts about putting the show together for 2020.

With no further ado, Ron Lazzeretti:

“Back in March 2020, soon after the pandemic became what it became, a friend of a friend was telling me that he’d seen our show, Naomi and Ron’s Christmas Special, for the first time back in December. It was the tenth annual, and he was telling me how this was his first time, how much he enjoyed it and how eager he was to now make it a holiday tradition.

It was nice to hear, of course.

Then he said something else. “I don’t think you’re gonna be doing that show this year.”

The thought had yet to occur to me. And it was so far off, that it didn’t seem worth worrying about.  But, of course, he was right. Time went by, things got worse instead of better. And it became increasingly clear that we would not be doing that show. At least not the way we had done it before.

Clearly, the fallout from the virus has manifested itself in far more cruel and tragic ways than the threat it posed to our little show. But the toll taken by the even the littlest things has a way of mounting. Our inability to gather together, the threat that even the most seemingly benign interactions can have a deadly result. These things hang over everything we do.

So, December approached.  And the closer it got, the more it felt like we should just give it a rest for the year. There just didn’t seem to be any way to do it justice.

The show is a collaboration in so many ways and on so many levels. It’s a merging of an ever-changing collection of artists and personalities, different types of music and comedy. And at the center of it all is an ongoing collaboration that I’m so grateful for between my singer songwriter friend, Naomi Ashley and me.

Our melding of the minds dates back over 20 years now. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you how it even got started. I just know that I liked her music and she liked mine, and when we sang together, something happened that we couldn’t achieve on our own.

So we started doing it more often. And playing shows where we’d split the bill, sing individual sets, and then mix it up with a set’s worth of duets. We even sang on each other’s albums.

So a Christmas Show just seemed like a natural. We’d play some songs together, play some songs apart.  And we’d bring on guests with a variety of talents. A woman who played the saw (a haunting Silent Night), a puppeteer, a magician who was frightened by his own magic powers.

Actually, the first time we did it, it wasn’t terribly hardcore Christmas. It was more like a variety show with Christmas leanings. We were proud of ourselves after that first show- Until another favorite ongoing collaborator of ours weighed in. Kate Fitzgerald, who’s club hosted us for that first show and every show after, and who’s opinion we took to heart, said to us “You call that a Christmas Show. Where the hell were all the Christmas songs?” From then on, we were all Christmas, all the time. And the show was better for it because something else started to happen.

Christmas is very ritualistic. It’s a time of year when we lean on traditions. We trust in them to get us in the proper spirit. And after a few years, you could feel that for some folks, we were becoming one of those things. And that cemented our mission- to find the right balance between things people could count on- recurring comedy characters, running jokes, opening and closing tunes, one featuring a kids’ choir and the other featuring a full-throated rock and role finale with a guest performer and our great house band, the Downsized Elves– and some surprises every year to keep things fresh… to keep the tradition vital.

The result over time is that our little show has become something of an extravaganza. There’s a touch of vaudeville. A touch of burlesque.  A heaping helping of Sixties TV variety show.

As I like to say, Naomi and Ron’s Christmas Special isn’t a show. It’s a SPECIAL! And it comes with the wonderful influence of our amazing band. The evolving chemistry between Naomi and me. The contributions of all our guests, especially those who’ve carved out a regular role for themselves. And the expectations of our audience who, in their own way, let us know what moves them, what tickles them, what they need from the show to be transported where they want to go.

Collaboration isn’t just essential to the enterprise.  It’s what it’s all about.

Donnie Biggins who books all the acts at Fitzgeralds texted us.

He said, “I know that a lot goes into one of those shows, and there’s no way to do it the way you normally would. But I think to do nothing would be wrong.” A few people had encouraged us to find a way to do it, but the note from Donnie stuck with us. “To do nothing would be wrong.”

Again, we know full well that there are more important things. But this was our thing. This is the part that we play. So we decided to give it a try, but it would have to be virtually.

In the past, people had recommended that we record the shows so they could live on and be watched by people everywhere. But I always held that this was a show for the people who attended.  This was a true example of “You had to be there.” Because the one thing that I never felt we could approximate was the warmth  of the room.

I’d never been involved with anything else where the audience played such a huge part. And now, they wouldn’t even be there. We started thinking of guests who might appear, aiming for that mix of  audience favorites and some new people who could bring something new to the operation. They would offer up whatever they chose to do and simply send it our way to be incorporated into the show. Like so many collaborations, it was at some point an act of faith.

We talked about how we would approach playing our music for the show. We planned on playing on the small stage of Fitzgerald's Patio where Will Duncan, the new proprietor, had presented socially distanced outdoor shows through the Fall.

And just as it all seemed to start coming together, the pandemic surged again, making it hard to safely congregate to shape and rehearse the show. And we had to rethink things again.

Honestly, what we really had to do was to open our hearts and minds to a new collaborator that could open up the show in profound ways. The only drawback being: that new collaborator was an asshole.

Technology.

It made it possible for us to do so much without having to be in the same room.  But it also threatened to highjack the show. It became overwhelming at some point. Days on end were spent trying to wrap our heads around zoom recordings,  dropbox transfers and musical apps. It was facilitating our ability to get wonderful things done. But it was draining and frustrating and it seemed to be keeping us from the part we love and the part we thought mattered.

At some point, the clock ran out on some of our more ambitious efforts. Particularly disappointing was our pulling of the plug on an attempt to get a kids choir singing with us to open the show. I’ve never had to fire a group of ten-year-olds before.  I don’t ever want to have to do it again.

But something had to go. We were almost out of time. Then our guests’ pieces came in.  One by one, they each brought their distinctive takes on Christmas. And somewhat miraculously, a show started to take shape. Naomi and I recorded a series of tailored bits for intros and outros into each segment.

For our part, Naomi and I put together a series of simple duets which I love but which were absent the thing that we love best about doing the show- playing with our band, The Downsized Elves.

So we got the band together and with the help of bandmate Michael Krayniak, we did a big production to close out the show.

A couple of dear friends and longtime collaborators (Brian Clark and Steve Morrison) did a wonderful job pulling all the disparate elements together, making it all feel part of the same piece.

And even though we all seemed to be operating in isolation, somehow we came together and created something that none of us could have created on our own.

At some point, one of our guests, the great Ike Reilly asked me how the show was turning out. I said to him, “It’s great big shaggy dog, incredibly lovable, but he sheds a little and he occasionally pees on the living room rug.” That’s my kind of dog!

One last thing-

When we were just getting started on the show, I was at my weekly 3-man socially distanced bonfire with two old friends. I started talking about the show and how exciting and daunting it was.  When I stopped, my dear friend and former business partner, Ed Amaya, said, “I want to do that.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant at first. “We need this,” he said. “I want to be a part of it.”

I reminded him that he was a margarita and a half in. Maybe he should wait until morning to volunteer his services.

“I’m in,” he said.

That’s the heart of a true collaborator.”  - Ron Lazzeretti

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