Monday, December 21, 2015

National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony (National Parks Service/PBS, filmed December 3, 2015; aired December 20, 2015)

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

The National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony actually took place on December 3, with President Barack Obama, his wife Michelle, her mom and the Obamas’ two daughters in attendance, and ironically I was watching this after having just returned home from downtown, where as I was walking to the bus stop I heard a man who was out with his wife and their two kids singing, predictably tonelessly, “Kill Obama, put him on trial for treason.” Of course I avoided any contact with him for fear that if I’d asked him why Obama should be killed and put on trial for treason (in that order?), I’d get an hours-long answer that would leave me thoroughly incensed and annoyed. (He’s entitled to his opinion but I think it’s a bit tasteless to be advocating the assassination of a sitting President in front of his children.) The PBS show scored points over the similar one on NBC recently, which commemorated the lighting of the big tree in Rockefeller Center, New York City, in that they got the actual tree-lighting out of the way first and made way for the speechifying and the musical guests. The speechifying came not only from the President himself but also the head of the National Park Service (the whole show was framed as an infomercial for the national park system! I might have minded that, but given how relentlessly the corporate media and the Republican Party propagandize against anything that is still publicly owned and ridicule the whole notion that the government should set aside any property as indefinitely protected for the use and benefit of the people as a whole, I’m not going to complain about a bit of counter-propaganda that reminds us that we have a collective heritage, a patrimony that ought to be left intact to our grandkids and beyond) and a 97-year-old woman who was introduced as the oldest still-serving park ranger. The musical portion of the show — which of course was what I was most interested in — began with the best act, the rock band Fall Out Boy tearing through Vince Guaraldi’s song “Christmas Time Is Here,” written for the original soundtrack to the 1964 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas and responding well to Fall Out Boy’s treatment, which was as hard-core rock ’n’ roll as PBS was going to let on the air during a family program.

After that a Warner Bros. recording artist named Andra Day — a light-skinned Black woman with one of those upswept hairdos, wearing a light white dress (in Washington, D.C.? In December?) — came out and did “Winter Wonderland” in a rendition that reminded me of Aretha Franklin’s 1960’s Columbia record (one I had on a compilation cassette of various Christmas ditties and which I recently dubbed to CD as part of my copy of Aretha’s first secular album, The Great Aretha Franklin); Day had the benefit of a less gloppy arrangement but hardly sang the song with Aretha’s passion and soul (but then, who’d expect her to?), but it was still in the same tradition and she spared the song the ghastly over-ornamentation of such awful soul remakes of standards as Aretha’s “Look to the Rainbow” and Patti LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow.” Then there came a reunion of Crosby, Stills and Nash doing an O.K. version of “Silent Night” — alas, their trademark vocal harmonies were in eclipse that night — and afterwards came one of the highlights of the evening, young New Orleans jazz musician Trombone Shorty (t/n Troy Andrews; his older brother James Andrews is a trumpeter and bandleader and their material grandmother is Jessie Hill, the R&B singer and songwriter who had a hit with the song “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”) working out on “Jingle Bells.” He was improvising so creatively on the piece that its melody didn’t emerge for about a minute or so, and I’m a bit surprised to learn from his Wikipedia page that he started playing trombone as a child since he does not limit himself to the closest slide positions the way Jack Teagarden, who also started as a child, did. Then came a singer named Bellamy Young doing an O.K. version of the Mel Tormé-Bob Wells “The Christmas Song” (incidentally the last time I was in a store I heard a record of “The Christmas Song” by Tormé himself, from a live nightclub gig and backed only by piano; I wish I could find that one since it’s better than the other two Tormé versions of that song I already have), and then Michelle Obama joined forces with the voice of Miss Piggy (who is it now? The character’s creator, Frank Oz, is still alive, but according to he’s relinquished the Miss Piggy Muppet to Eric Jacobson) for a charming reading of “The Night Before Christmas” (though I still think Louis Armstrong’s recording, made in March 1971 just four months before he passed, is the best).

Afterwards we got an uncommonly good children’s string orchestra called the Joyous String Ensemble making their way quite ably through Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” — the fact that I was less bothered by any flaws in the players’ intonation (I could hear virtually none) than by the absence of the other orchestral instruments called for in Anderson’s original arrangement says a great deal for the skills of these kids. Then Tori Kelly — who seems to crop up on a lot of these shows and therefore must be a big star even though I’d hardly heard of her — came out and did an O.K. version of “O Holy Night” (Céline Dion had done this one a lot better on the NBC show even though both Charles and I were disappointed that Dion didn’t sing all, or at least part, of the song in the original French) and someone named Aloe Blacc (that’s how he spells his last name! From that appellation you’d probably guess he was a rapper, but he’s actually a fairly good Black soul singer) came out and did the song “This Christmas” from (I believe) the Jackson Five’s Christmas album in the old Motown days. Mr. Blacc and Ms. Day later joined forces on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” spiced up with a nice solo from Trombone Shorty, but in between Blacc’s two numbers someone named Kelsey Boccherini (actually I’m not at all sure of the last name but I’m going with that version because it’s evocative of the Italian Baroque composer and therefore I know it’s somebody’s name) did “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” agan less soulfully than her opposite number on the NBC special (Mary J. Blige), and of course neither could hold a candle to Judy Garland’s eloquent, prayerful reading of the song both in the film Meet Me in St. Louis and on her contemporaneous Decca recording. The entire ensemble came out to do “Jingle Bells” as a finale, with President Obama singing lead — mediocrely; whatever he’s planning to do once he’s termed out of the Presidency on January 20, 2017, I would not recommend to him that he pursue singing as an alternative career!