116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Inspired by the wonder in her tiny granddaughter’s eyes, Carol Montag is seeking to capture that spirit in this year’s holiday concert, “A Toys for Tots Carol Christmas,” filling stockings with joy at CSPS in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 15.
What: Carol Montag: “A Toys for Tots Carol Christmas”
Where: CSPS Hall, 1101 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 15
Tickets: $30 advance, $34 door, $180 VIP table; CSPS Box Office, (319) 364-1580 or cspshall.org/events
Donations: Audience members are invited to bring new, unwrapped toys for the Toys for Tots boxes; organization details and a wish list at cedar-rapids-ia.toysfortots.org
Artist’s website: carolmontag.com/
Music video link: carolmontag.com/blog/
“(It’s) kind of exciting, because little kids have a totally different view of the world than we do,” said Montag of Cedar Rapids. “Everything’s so new and everything is being experienced for the first time.
“I have some of my decorations up at home, and Sloane was over here. She’s 2, and I was just really having fun because she was just staring at everything like, ‘Wow.’ You can remember as a kid, how excited you were for Christmas to come. This anticipation builds up.
“And as an adult, so many years I would just feel like, ‘I'm gonna feel that way again. I can I feel that same excitement.’ It’s just part of childhood (but) you had to grow up, I guess.”
So for this year’s concert, she said, “I wanted to see things through the eyes of a child. In the past, I’ve had fun things about food, singing songs like ‘No Time to Diet,’ and things like that.”
The new musical menu will begin with traditional holiday songs, some about angels and some that are more contemporary. Then in the second half, the program will switch to a children’s theme, with songs like “Toyland.”
She’s also hoping to turn CSPS into a toy land that night, teaming up with Toys for Tots to place two boxes at the hall to collect new, unwrapped toys to make the season brighter for area children. It’s the organization’s final box collection before Christmas, Montag noted. For details and a wish list, go to cedar-rapids-ia.toysfortots.org
No matter how she changes the focus and format, one annual musical highlight is Montag’s signature version of “Silent Night.” With her soaring descant, it became a fan favorite during nearly 20 years of Christmas concerts with Nina Swanson and Kathy Donnelly as the trio Tribute. When they ended their run in 2017, Montag continued in a solo vein in 2018.
“It's pretty simple,” she said of her decision to keep the carols coming. “I just basically love Christmas music, and I love to sing, and I just thought, ‘Well, we'll give it a shot.’ ”
She and collaborator Cameron Sullenberger, co-founder and musical director for Revival Theatre Company, begin planning the music in the summer. It’s an alliance she enjoys, saying he often brings her songs she hasn’t heard before.
“(He) has probably been the most key person,” she said. “We’ve become good friends, and he has kind of partnered with me.”
He also sings and plays piano for her holiday show. Joining them are Matt Butler on cello and vocals, and Greg Kanz, “adding a touch of sparkle” on drums and percussion, Montag added.
Another favorite song she’s looking forward to sharing this year is “All on a Wintry Night,” by Judy Collins, whose music she covered in her recent Iowa Opera House Tour, also featuring the music of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez.
New this year is adding VIP tables of four near the stage, offering prime viewing, a bottle of wine or champagne, and assorted goodies. Montag credits Revival Theatre’s board president, Lori Maach, who came up with the idea during a marketing brainstorming session with Montag and Sullenberger.
Montag, an Ames native well-known on the Eastern Iowa music scene, has a much farther reach. She has recorded four folk-flavored solo albums and two Christmas CDs with Tribute, and has shared the stage with Arlo Guthrie, Michael Johnson, Greg Brown, John Gorka, John Stewart and Three Dog Night.
But for years, she’s had to work around the challenges of Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that can cause dizziness, a fullness in the ears, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
She hasn’t shared information beyond her inner circle, but felt the time was right to cast light on the situation, also afflicting rock singer Huey Lewis in both ears.
For Montag, “I’m basically deaf in my right ear, and in place of hearing, I have a constant noise.”
So far, she’s able to power through.
“It’s kind of a scary thing, to be hearing impaired and trying to keep doing this,” she said. “In a way, I feel like why should I hide this. …
“It’s kind of similar to a migraine, because when you get hit by vertigo all of a sudden, you can’t move. You have to lay down right away; you start vomiting. … You can really hurt yourself if you’re all of a sudden standing, and then you get knocked to the ground.”
A couple of times on her opera house tour, she felt a wave coming on and had to lie down in the venue’s green room for a bit, before going onstage.
“So far, knock on wood, I’ve been able to get through my performances,” she said, adding, “I have to depend so much on my left ear. That's why my monitor is always toward my left side. I did try a hearing aid in that (right) ear, and it doesn't really do any good, because the noise that I hear is phantom noise generated inside your head.
“It’s a weird, weird disease that I don’t wish on anybody.”
And like so many other Eastern Iowans, Montag felt the full force of the pandemic, compounded by the derecho, which downed trees and damaged homes in her northeast Cedar Rapids neighborhood.
A singer/songwriter, her artistic response was to write a song, then she wanted to add images from the derecho. Kirk Luther Monson, a videographer she knows from church, offered to help out, and not only filmed Montag singing, but added some of his own video to the effort. Another local artist, Dan Towey at UpTilDawn Studios, served as sound engineer, and Celia Phillips added cello to Montag’s vocals, guitar and piano.
The end result is “Strange Ballet,” which opens with the buzz of chain saws and video of a crane lifting a tree from a neighbor’s house. The music and images then move through a ballet pas de deux, with the male dancer representing the crane, delicately lifting the ballerina/tree.
“ … His muscles, sinew, bones of steel/Lift the lifeless, sweet Giselle/From the shattered footlights/Where she fell./As he lifts her gently through the air/Sequin floating everywhere/From her tattered tutu/Once so fair …”
The process gave her the outlet she needed.
“I think it just helped me to say how I felt about all of it,” she said.
Monson, producer/director at MonZah Films, urged her to enter it in film festivals, and told her about the The Film Freeway listing of festivals around the world. She took a leap of faith, and her video recently won an Award of Recognition from the IndieFEST Film Awards, which says it receives thousands of entries from around the world. It also screened at the Iowa Independent Film Festival in Mason City in September.
The poignant video is posted on her website’s blog, carolmontag.com/blog/
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