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NIGHT LIFE: 3rd Annual Christmas Sweater Festival

Christmas Sweater Festival at El Rey to benefit Teen Impact cancer program

Wearing really ugly knitwear is a badge of honor at the event, where Deadly Syndrome, Pity Party, Castledoor and others will perform.

December 18, 2009|By Alie Ward
  • The Deadly Syndrome will be breaking out their wintry best for the Christmas Sweater Festival.
The Deadly Syndrome will be breaking out their wintry best for the Christmas… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

"When everyone is wearing ugly sweaters, it's hard to stand out as being the most appalling," says Nat Cole, vocalist of the L.A.-based band Castledoor. This is the band's second time on the bill of the third annual Christmas Sweater Festival, a concert and charity benefit that's a blur of buzz-worthy indie rock and distasteful seasonal garments. This Saturday at the El Rey, expect to find a sea of atrocious cardigans and jumpers as all the cool kids come together in the spirit of fashion, libations, music and holiday unity.

Julie Edwards handles drums, keyboards and vocals for the duo the Pity Party, which is playing the Sweater Festival for the third time. Edwards, who refers to herself by the made-up moniker Heisenflei, has a lucid recollection of the years' most visually arresting sweater. "Turquoise and black stripes with pictures of squirrels in love." Then she adds, "It was mine."

In a sprawling city teeming with musicians, the Eastside music community might seem more tightly knit than other sectors of the L.A. scene. One musician who calls himself Jason 71, guitarist and vocalist for the shoegazey band Eskimohunter, says, "There's so much good music coming out from friends it's almost hard to digest." The four-piece band played the event's first year, and he says the band is excited to be asked back. He also says he's spent time devising a sweater strategy, with little luck. "I had a grand idea of having one giant sweater with eight arm holes," he says, "but logistically it's a terrible idea."

The yearly benefit started as a party thrown by the jangly Silver Lake outfit the Deadly Syndrome. The band guitarist Will Etling recalls that it "grew out of a college party that our drummer, Jesse Hoy, used to have at his house every year. It was usually the best party of the winter." The band decided to step it up and hold the event at a larger venue and funnel proceeds to charity.

Anyone familiar with the L.A. indie rock scene can attest that the Sweater Fest bears a vibe unmatched in giddiness. Attendees are challenged to one-up each other in the audacity of their apparel, and what results is a crowd that's stripped of pretense and armed in some cases with reindeer antlers and gingerbread aprons. An emcee (usually a comedian) takes the stage in between acts to keep things requisitely goofy, and shameless photo opportunities abound. In all, it's difficult to maintain an attitude of detached cool when dressed like a Midwestern soccer mom.

The last two years, the Christmas Sweater Fest has raised several thousand dollars to benefit the nongovernmental medical organization Doctors Without Borders. This year, Etling says, "With the economy in shambles and more people right in L.A. needing help, we decided to send the proceeds to Teen Impact."

Founded in 1989 by Dr. Aura Kuperberg, Teen Impact is a nonprofit program that treats the psychological and social effects encountered by teens battling cancer and blood disorders. The organization, headquartered at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, seeks to fill the gap between children's and adult cancer programs with support groups, local outings and group activities.

Octavio Zavala, a Teen Impact program administrator and cancer survivor, says the Deadly Syndrome -- a band name he says is ironic, given the cause -- toured the facilities. "They were very moved," he says, "and they wanted to take us as their charity."

Etling says, "Since many of our fans are teenagers, it felt like a really good thing to be doing, to be helping that age group."

With a new charity on board, the event is also switching locations from the EchoPlex to the El Rey. "We were blown away by the sound, the facilities, just everything about it," Etling says of the Mid-Wilshire venue. "Plus you can't beat that big neon marquee out front."

On Saturday, the marquee will glow with the bands Eskimohunter, the Pity Party, the Deadly Syndrome, Signals, Castledoor and heavy-hitting L.A. punk staples 400 Blows.

But indoors, the glow may come from battery-operated sweaters. Jason 71 recalls one year's knitted atrocity: "I remember seeing one with a Christmas tree decorated with working lights on it. Kind of a Bill Cosby sweater on acid."

3rd Annual Christmas Sweater Festival

Where: El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Price: $17

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