Chances are your Christmas traditions don’t include a backstage pass experience with dozens of A-list musicians who tour with the likes of Phil Collins, Earth, Wind & Fire and Frankie Valli. Unless, that is, you’ve been on the inside of Canyon Country’s best-kept musical secret for the last 27 years.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church holds an annual concert spearheaded by Robby Robinson, who pulls together about 30 of his friends – also professional musicians – who bring to the public a show called Jam for Jesus. It’s a free three-hour music experience featuring men and women who perform for a living, but do the concert voluntarily.
“The talent level is just off the charts, but more than the talent level is the heart that these musicians have, who are giving their talent – significant talent, I might add – to the Lord,” Robinson said. “You walk into this church and what you get is what you’d expect to see in Radio City Music Hall.”
Front-and-center is Robinson on keyboard, who created the annual event when he was the minister of music at the church in the 1990s, and his brother, Rex Robinson, on bass. Though Rex, an Agua Dulce resident, has retired from touring, both men were in Frankie Valli’s band, and Robby has been Valli’s music director for more than 40 years.
Some of the horns, guitarists, vocalists, etc. are locals who are now professionals, including Andrea Hammond, Roland and Tristan Garcia and Sara Niemietz. Jam for Jesus performers also include musicians who play in the “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol” bands.
The songs in the concert are sacred, Robby said, including a number of Christmas songs. But the group tackles many different styles, from classical to jazz/pop. Far from a rigid performance, it’s what Robby calls “somewhat loose,” where there’s only one rehearsal and a basic script, which he writes in advance.
Like a symphony, these friends of Robby create a blend that fills the rafters, using little musical construction but still following a list of songs and basic arrangements.
“It’s like flying with no net,” Robby said. “It’s a very intimate kind of concert, not formal – you feel like you’re backstage. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there.”
One professional who’s “been there” from the beginning is percussionist Richie Garcia. He’s recorded on soundtracks for such films as “The Italian Job” and “Emperor’s New Groove” and toured with Sting, Diana Ross, Brooks and Dunn and many others. His sons, Roland and Tristan, also perform professionally and are frequent members of the Bethlehem Lutheran band.
“It’s an honor to share the stage with my family and some of the most accomplished musicians in Los Angeles year after year,” said Tristan Garcia. “They come together for a time of giving, share their talents and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.”
Meanwhile, their friend and leader Robby Robinson keeps packing a bag. A couple of weeks ago he played in Milwaukee, followed by Chicago, and ended up in Detroit, onstage with Frankie Valli.
Last year, the Robinson brothers flew to their hometown of Litchfield, Illinois (population about 7,000) where their mother still lives. Where they held the Robinson Brothers 40th Anniversary Concert, raising more than $100,000 for a small hospital. Some of the Robinsons’ musical colleagues who flew to Litchfield to play included a member of Mel Torme’s band and one of the stars of Broadway’s “Jersey Boys.”
If you attend Bethlehem Lutheran on a Sunday morning it’s possible to hear several of the same musicians. You’re more likely to see Rex Robinson in the worship band than Robby, who is now a minister of music in Simi Valley, where he lives. But his years of leadership give him the ability to speak for many of his musician friends.
“I feel so blessed to do what I do,” Robby said. “And that’s the way these guys feel.”
Bethlehem Lutheran Church is located at 27265 Luther Drive in Canyon Country. Jam for Jesus will be held on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. For more information, call 661-252-0622 or visit BethlehemSCV.com.