Thursday, December 3, 2015

Christmas at Rockefeller Center (NBC, December 2, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I stayed in and watched TV, including the Jeopardy! episode and some other shows that were on NBC. There was the annual Christmas at Rockefeller Center mini-extravaganza that combined an all-star concert with the famous tree lighting — the tree isn’t that big a deal but the concert was a lot of fun even though some of the performers weren’t necessarily the ones I would have picked. The show opened with a women’s chorus singing a rather sappy version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” offered in honor of the San Bernardino shooting victims (though I presume the program had long since been determined when that event happened) but got a lot better as it proceeded. First Michael Bublé came on and did “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” — apparently from a Christmas CD he just released specifically focused on Christmas songs written for holiday-themed movies — his isn’t a great voice but it’s still nice to hear him and think the standard repertoire has a future and there are going to be people still around to sing it once Tony Bennett croaks.

Then a sensationally successful guy named Andy Grammer (I’d never heard of him before, but he is cute!) did a version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that at first appalled me, less because of him than the din going on behind him. “It’s supposed to be the little drummer boy, not the little drum machine!” I joked — but as the song progressed I started to get into the infectious spirit of his rendition even though I’d have preferred him to have done it with a flesh-and-blood drummer. Afterwards they brought in the aging James Taylor — wearing a ball cap to hide the pate the top of his head has become (I’m sure a lot of the people who bought Sweet Baby James 45 years ago were at least initially attracted to the album because of that magnificent head of hair on the cover, and so to see him develop male-pattern baldness big-time was more of a shock than it should have been) — to do “Winter Wonderland” with Chris Botti playing some Miles-esque trumpet behind him. Then The Band Perry, one of my favorite current bands — mainly due to the incredibly soulful and infectious voice of lead singer Kim Perry rather than the two brothers who play instruments and do backing vocals behind her decently but unspectacularly — tore into “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” (using a tastefully updated version of the Phil Spector/Jack Nitzsche arrangement that was also what Bruce Springsteen covered), and they were followed by what was billed as a modern-day a cappella group called Pentatonix. I wish they had done their song, “Joy to the World,” totally a cappella instead of backing themselves with yet another one of those infernal drum machines, but aside from that noise in the background it was a quite capable rendition, featuring yet another soulful blonde white woman singer who was giving Kim Perry a surprising run for her money.

Afterwards Sting came on with a sort of neo-folk ensemble doing a song I hadn’t heard called “Soul Cake” (though with enough of his trademarks it’s almost certainly an original) — at first I misheard the announcement and thought Chris Botti was playing on it, too, but the secondary voice turned out to be a violin instead of a trumpet, and a quite capably played Irish folk-fiddle style violin at that. Then the announcers said that Carly Rae Jepsen was about to come on and sing “the Wham! classic, ‘Last Christmas’” — “Wham!” and “classic” are two words I never thought I’d hear in the same sentence, but the song itself was fun and nice to hear. After that Andrea Bocelli did “Adeste Fidelis” (we know it as “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” but Bocelli sang it in the original Latin), after an unctuous announcer had informed us that Bocelli had sold 100 million records, more than any other classical singer in history (more than Pavarotti? Somehow I rather doubt it!). Bocelli has a nice voice, and of course the fact that he’s blind has probably built up a lot of sympathy for him among the people who’ve bought some of those 100 million records, but I can’t help thinking of Willie Johnson, Willie McTell, Art Tatum, Lennie Tristano, Erroll Garner, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, José Feliciano and all the other musicians who’ve shared Bocelli’s blindness but not his blandness! Then the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes came on with a dance routine to a song called “Let Christmas Shine,” and after that, in yet another tie-in to NBC’s promised live telecast of the musical The Wiz tonight, Mary J. Blige, who’s playing the Wicked Witch in their production, came out and did a quite good soul version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Very clever, these hypesters at NBC: have a major star who’s going to be in your production of The Wiz sing a song originally written for Judy Garland!