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RED BANK: EXPRESS TO THE SEASON OF LIGHTS

crowd-112709-500x375-3410455The Christmas-capital crossroads of Broad and Canal streets is the place to be on Friday night, when Holiday Express presides over the annual concert and town lighting ceremony. (File photos. Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

stage-2-112709-220x165-7776713As Tim McLoone tells it, he’s “just the keyboard player” in Holiday Express, the winter-wonderland Wall of Sound and Brilliant Light that he founded and has fronted since 1993. But if the big band is merely the part of the all-volunteer humanitarian train that “makes the most noise,” then there’s more to the Express seasonal journey than meets the eye or ear.

The 21st season of performances by Holiday Express — a schedule that takes two regional touring and support units to 60-plus stops in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania — actually got underway more than two weeks ago. By December 24, the Express team will have logged some 10,000 miles visiting, playing for and distributing gifts to more than 15,000 people in area homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers, children’s wards and other places well off the beaten path — places whose residents are often without any family or friends.

For most of us, however, the keynote to the holiday season on the greater Red Bank Green happens on the evening of Black Friday, when the Express makes a rare public-invited pitstop to the downtown nexus of Broad and Canal streets. It’s there, on November 29, that McLoone and company will be flipping the switch on a wintry interlude of special activities and events in the borough — a Town Lighting made all the more special, with the welcome return of some much-missed local traditions.

santa-112709-500x375-7668858The Santa Express returns to make its Friday evening run between station stops Little Silver and Red Bank  where Santa debarks and may climb into a spiffy open car, as he did in 2009 – on November 29. (File photo. Click to enlarge)

Back on track in 2013 — following a one-year hiatus, during which NJ Transit was busy dealing with ongoing infrastructure issues in the wake of Superstorm Sandy — the Santa Express train departs station stop Little Silver at 6:44 pm with Santa and Mrs. Claus greeting passengers, posing for photo ops, and leading the procession down Monmouth Street upon arrival at Red Bank’s gingerbread-style station house. Those not taking the train may want to arrive at Red Bank station by 5:30 to catch performances by The Pipes and Drums of the Atlantic Watch and Kathryn Barnett School of Dance.

The free outdoor concert, for which many thousands of revelers have braved every conceivable variety of November weather over the years, is scheduled to get underway shortly after 7 pm. The intersection will be closed to vehicular traffic for the duration of the event, and video screens will be set up to enhance the view of the stage. The Red Bank Volunteer Fire Department will be dispensing hot chocolate; radio station Thunder 106 will be on hand with giveaways, and new this year will be a live remote by Radio Disney New York, with games, prizes, and more promised.

At the heart of the annual event is the marvelous music machine that is Holiday Express, performing a set of seasonal chestnuts that range from rearranged traditional carols to such fun fare as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Mr. Grinch,” and “Disco Santa.” The band has put the accent on the upbeat for these concerts — reclaiming that “Phil Spector Christmas Album” wall of sound from the Bad Santa who brought it into the world 50 years ago — and at the climax of the show, the juice is turned on for the borough’s much-admired downtown lighting display. It’s a moment that’s drawn a good deal of cheers in itself — particularly after the prolonged post-Sandy blackouts of 2012 — and it’s a big part of what’s made Red Bank the undisputed Capital of Christmas around these parts.

Another classic element of the weekend is the official Red Bank Christmas tree — now at Riverside Gardens, relocated from its recent roost outside the front courtyard of The Dublin House. The tree, which was installed this past weekend near the entrance to the West Front Street park, will light up the waterfront setting as a partner project between the borough and Red Bank RiverCenter — while the owners of The Dub, for their part, plan to continue their contribution to the downtown lightscape outside the historic house on Monmouth (the annual West Side Tree adds to the townwide light therapy, with a ceremony on December 7).

This coming Saturday sees the kickoff to the shopping season activities in Red Bank, from Classic Horse and Carriage Rides to Pictures with Santa, and the Holiday Harmonies slate of strolling sidewalk entertainments. Holiday Express returns to Red Bank on December 19, for the annual fundraiser concert at the Count Basie. Take it here for tickets to that historically sold-out show — and check the GO ON GREEN listings here on redbankgreen, for a full day-by-day rundown of holiday concerts, ballets, plays, parties, gift fairs, tree and menorah lightings and other events, all around the greater green.

Remember: Nothing makes a Red Bank friend happier than to hear "I saw you on Red Bank Green!"
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