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border crossings

Get Hep!
By David McGee

Hepcat Records

A clever ruse this is, but could it have worked more beautifully? One thinks not. The Hepcats are billed as a guitar trio: Johnny Paulcat, “Son” Hepjohn and Paul Catson. Which sounds suspiciously like the group is really a single, he being Paul Johnson, famed in surf music circles as the leader of the Bel-Airs and composer of the group’s classic 1961 hit, “Mr. Moto.” Alert readers of will also recognize Johnson as the author of an authoritative piece on the origins of surf music in our June 2010 “Endless Summer” issue. Moreover, Johnson fans might also recognize the content of Christmas With the Hepcats as being identical to that found on the artist’s earlier seasonal outpouring, Christmas Guitars.

Any way you cut it, Johnson is a monster of a guitar picker, and his multitracked excursions into Christmas fare are as beautifully conceived and executed as they are arresting as they are fun. Whereas, say, Steve Wariner goes for the meditative side of his selection on Guitar Christmas (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), Johnson, deeply invested in the energy and drive of surf music, leans more towards the frolicsome side in arranging his repertoire. Yet when he does tone it down, wondrous things happen: the reverence in his rendering of “O, Holy Night” raises goosebumps with its beauty; the steely unison guitars striding through “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (along with the unexpected textural wrinkle of a series of cascading lines sprinkled here and there) summon the majesty of the moment most effectively; and the darting lines and unison parts in “Do You Hear What I Hear” evoke the majesty of Der Bingle’s classic original vocal version while making a moving statement of their own via some discreet bluesy touches here and there; hewing to the standard melody and taking it at a steady gait, the ‘cats’ “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” recalls some of John Fahey’s singular excursions into seasonal fare its wonderment at the loveliness of the song’s straight-ahead magnificence, no embellishment necessary. In a very Fahey-like move, Johnson strings together three of the most moving carols to form an “Annunciation Medley,” a tasty 2:50 of “Joy To the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” seamlessly blended, lovingly rendered, and simply beautiful in their stately grandeur, imparting all the solemnity and wonder of the Christ child’s birth without benefit of a single human voice, only the near-palpable emotion of Johnson’s reverence for the holy night.

On the other hand, the romp through “Jingle Bells” is positively infectious, the bop of “Jingle Bell Rock” (the opening guitar lick is recreated faithfully) is delightful, “Sleigh Ride” features a sprightly dialogue between the guitars as it cruises along gracefully, “Silent Night” gets an affecting country treatment, and “Deck the Halls” is a fleet 1:03 of spirited conversation between the multiple guitars. Throw in a dreamy, languorous take (save for a striking, mid-song uptempo digression) on Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” that offers a bit of bluesy commentary and interesting textural coloration courtesy contrasting top and bottom strings soloing, and you truly are experiencing a Christmas with a hep quotient few can boast. To quote the immortal Teisco del Rey, writing under his nom de plume as Dan Forte in Guitar Player: “The Hepcats are surely the most accomplished acoustic guitarists of the feline world.” Who can argue with that?

The Hepcats’ Christmas With the Hepcats is available at Paul Johnson’s Guitar Heaven website.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024