THIS CHRISTMAS by Michael McDonald: A Holiday Masterpiece
A Must-Have Christmas CD
Musical Versatility Meets Blue-Eyed Soul for the Holidays
I am simply not aware of an artist of any race who performs with more soul than blue-eyed Michael McDonald. His distinctive, husky baritone has been a staple of popular music since the mid 1970s, when this St. Louis native became the innovative, soulful leader of The Doobie Brothers. In addition to his remarkable talent as a singer, McDonald has also excelled as a musician, composer, producer and arranger. As a member of the Doobies and a solo artist, this Grammy-winning performer has sold tens of millions of recordings and remains one of the industry's most beloved and respected figures.
The stellar quality of McDonald's holiday CD This Christmas certainly meets the ultrahigh standard that this veteran entertainer has set for his abundant musical contributions.
This 2009 release by Razor & Tie Direct is actually a compilation of mostly previously released material. Five tracks come from his 2001 MCA Nashville release In the Spirit: A Christmas Album. Universal Music re-issued this identical selection of songs in 2003 as The Best of Michael McDonald: The Christmas Collection under their 20th Century Masters series. Three other tracks originate from his 2005 Hallmark release Through the Many Winters: A Christmas Album. The remaining four tracks are original releases. Thus, fans who may already have one or more of these previously released albums will want to acquire This Christmas for its previously unreleased recordings. Likewise, listeners who enjoy this 2009 CD may want to complete their collection of McDonald's Christmas recordings by acquiring one or more of his previously released holiday albums.
Michael McDonald has covered several Stevie Wonder classics during his lengthy career. Indeed, he is one of the few artists who is talented enough to do so respectably. Thus, it is only fitting that he opens this holiday album with his version of Stevie's joyous "That's What Christmas Means to Me." Having become accustomed to hearing Wonder's teen tenor on the 1967 hit, most listeners will welcome this smooth transition to McDonald's seasoned baritone. Ubiquitous musical collaborator Tommy Sims, who wrote the 1997 Grammy-winning Song of the Year "Change the World" for Eric Clapton, plays guitars and bass on this track. He also receives credit for the rhythm and horn arrangements. His contributions have enabled this cover to sound fresh but retain the danceable groove of the original.
Likewise, McDonald's cover of "This Christmas," which serves as the title track, presents an innovative interpretation of the Donny Hathaway classic but retains its soulful, cheerful nature. This song is ideally suited for McDonald's vocals. Barry Green and Mark Douthit accompany him on horns in a smooth style that is reminiscent of the legendary rock group Chicago. DeMarco Johnson blows some captivating notes on harmonica in a style that is reminiscent of Stevie Wonder.
The medley "White Christmas/Winter Wonderland" provides an impressive example of McDonald's innovativeness and versatility. Accompanied by a soothing piano, he sings "White Christmas" soulfully but in the traditional, laid-back manner in which we are accustomed to hearing it. However, upon shifting to "Winter Wonderland," he improvises liberally, even scatting a few notes. Blaring horns join in to create that Big Band sound. Young blues master Jonny Lang jumps in on lead guitar. McDonald's rousing version of this beloved tune from the 1930s is certainly unlike any that I have ever heard. However, it is indeed refreshingly delightful.
"Wexford Carol" is a traditional Irish Christmas carol from the 12th century. No doubt returning to his Irish heritage, Mr. McDonald sings passionately as he accompanies himself on dulcimer and synths. His wife, Amy Holland McDonald, who has certainly earned her share of success in the music industry, begins to sing, soon harmonizing with her husband. Stuart Duncan plays fiddle melodiously. McDonald's arrangement of this ancient carol is reminiscent of some of the period performances that we hear from Celtic Woman and Mannheim Steamroller.
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is a traditional English Christmas carol whose lyrics are reputed to have been written during the 15th century. However, unlike the way McDonald has arranged the previous cut, he has given this ancient tune a very modern arrangement. The innovative genius croons pensively, reflectively, as he accompanies himself on piano and bass. Meanwhile, backing vocalists Drea Rhenee, Daniel E. Moore II and Kabanya Vinson steadily and soothingly recite, "Tidings of comfort and joy." The calm, deeply soulful style of this performance is classic Michael McDonald, urban R&B at its very best.
"Peace" provides an unforgettable example of McDonald's phenomenal ability to write songs. Co-written with Beth Nielsen Chapman, this haunting ballad is the expression of a troubled person's realization that he can finally achieve inner peace through the newly born Christ. McDonald's heartfelt vocals convince us that we truly are listening to an individual who plans to turn his life around and prays that he never falls off course again. McDonald accompanies himself on piano. A cello, a violin and some synth strings also accompany him. This relatively minimal accompaniment enhances the power of McDonald's voice and the overall beauty of this piece.
"On This Night" is yet another outstanding McDonald composition. Co-written with his frequent collaborators Bernie Chiaravalle and Marc Harris, this soaring, uplifting ballad celebrates the redemption of mankind through the birth of Jesus. McDonald's heartfelt, husky baritone enriches its profound message. The musical accompaniment on this cut is much larger than that of the previous one. This opulent, majestic sound is indeed appropriate to announce the arrival of a king. The strings are tearjerkingly exquisite. David Hoffner receives credit for their arrangement on this track and the previous one. Quite frankly, I believe that "On This Night" is one of the most beautiful recordings of all time.
"Children, Go Where I Send Thee" is a traditional African-American spiritual. Of course, black culture has profoundly inspired and influenced this soulful performer. Thus, his recording this ethnic gem is entirely appropriate. McDonald shares the credit for this particular arrangement with Harris. He sings with all the passion that we would expect for this exhilarating spiritual. Grammy-winning gospel legend Twinkie Clark joins him on lead vocals. The Delegation Choir provides backing vocals. McDonald's powerful voice remains completely harmonious as part of this rousing gospel singing. Meanwhile, the musical accompaniment sounds like a New Orleans jazz band, especially with its inclusion of Sam Levine on clarinet.
"Every Time Christmas Comes Around" showcases the versatility of McDonald's amazing talent. He shares the co-writing credit with Harris. He plays acoustic and electric piano. And he sings lead and background vocals. This up-tempo number sounds like classic R&B. Its ample accompaniment of brass and woodwinds is reminiscent of that funky sound of Earth, Wind & Fire. Kirk Whalum blows a stirring sax solo. Of course, McDonald's husky baritone remains as soulful as ever.
The tenth track on the CD is another medley. "O Come O Come Emanuel" is an English translation of a 12th-century Catholic hymn that was written in Latin. "What Month Was Jesus Born" is another traditional African-American spiritual. Arranger McDonald masterfully combines these two seemingly disparate tunes into a funky reggae number. His soulful lead vocals fit this genre seamlessly. He also sings backing vocals with Rhenee, Moore, Vinson and Russ Bono. I have certainly never before heard "O Come O Come Emanuel" performed with a reggae beat or paired with an African-American spiritual in a medley. Kudos to McDonald for this impressive stroke of ingenuity.
McDonald's version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sounds like Louis Armstrong-era New Orleans jazz. Much of the credit for creating this distinctive sound must go to collaborators George Tidwell on cornet, Dennis Solee on clarinet, Barry Green on trombone and Joe Murphy on tuba. In addition to singing lead vocals, McDonald contributes to producing the sound of this classic American genre by playing the tenor banjo. His daughter, Scarlett McDonald, sings the final verse of this song. Her sultry voice is reminiscent of the iconic Bonnie Raitt. It fits this style of music perfectly. Papa McDonald's rendition of this beloved holiday favorite from World War II is fresh and utterly entertaining.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is yet another immensely popular song from the 1940s. McDonald's interpretation of this Yuletide treasure also bears that flavor of the Deep South. The tempo is characteristically easy, laid-back. In addition to singing, McDonald strums a baritone ukulele. Soothing strings accompany him. This track evokes floating down a lazy river on an inner tube without a care in the world. Indeed, when you consider the theme of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," especially the line "From now on our troubles will be miles away," McDonald's tranquil version of this song is insightfully appropriate.
Quite frankly, Michael McDonald's This Christmas is a holiday masterpiece. The CD presents a collection of twelve songs of the season that have been masterfully recorded by one of the most talented, soulful performers of all time. Thoroughly entertaining and inspirational, this CD is destined to become a cherished component of millions of Christmas celebrations for many years to come.
Imagine this annual scenario. You gather with the ones you love on the night before Christmas. You have completed the hustle and hassle of preparing for the big day. Now you want to remind yourself and your loved ones of the actual reason for the holiday. So you play your treasured copy of This Christmas. Soon the track "On This Night" is playing, which enables you and your party to hear Michael McDonald inspiringly sing these immaculate lyrics:
Behold I bring you tidings,
tidings of great joy.
The world has found its answer
in a child that's born.
Behold I bring you tidings,
tidings of great joy.
The world has found its savior
in a child that's born
on this night.
THIS CHRISTMAS Discography
- "That's What Christmas Means to Me"
- "This Christmas"
- "White Christmas/Winter Wonderland"
- "Wexford Carol"
- "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
- "On This Night"
- "Children, Go Where I Send Thee"
- "Every Time Christmas Comes Around"
- "O Come O Come Emanuel/What Month Was Jesus Born"
- "I'll Be Home for Christmas"
- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Tracks 3, 6, 7, 8 and 9 originally appear on In the Spirit: A Christmas Album.
Tracks 4, 5 and 10 originally appear on Through the Many Winters: A Christmas Album.