Joni Mitchell’s song “River” from her 1971 Album “Blue” is not really a Christmas song, and if you were of a certain age in the early to mid-seventies you heard that Album and that song almost too many times. However, hearing “River” Saturday night at the Highline Ballroom in NYC, as sung by the exquisite singer, Maura O’Connell, was a real treat. It is a great song and in the hands of the best song interpreter around, it was even better. So began Maura O’Connell’s portion of a terrific Christmas ensemble, “A Very Jerry Christmas” that rolled into town. The show focused on Jerry Douglas’s virtuosity, added with vocals by Maura O’Connell and, believe it or not, vocal and instrumental contributions from none other than John Oates, rather famous in his own right as half of a little Philadelphia duo from the 70’s and 80’s. This group managed to sell a few records in their day. Maura O’Connell mentioned during the show that recently Hall & Oates received a Grammy nomination for a 2009 live version of “Sarah Smile”.
The show itself featured many of the tracks from “Jerry Christmas”, Jerry Douglas’s recent release where he does impeccable interpretations of standards and other Christmas songs. The man can really play.
In the shortened show (the Highline was booked right after this particular show and the set list was shortened by 30 minutes or so), Jerry performed, “O Holy Night”, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem”, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter”, “The First Noel”, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “All Through the Night”. John Oates added Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song”, nicely interpreted, but best of all was a Tom Waits-style “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, as lip-synced (maybe) by Alex Hargreaves, one of Jerry’s violinists, with Maura dancing crazily, adding to the campy mood. Alex looks almost young enough to still believe in Santa Claus, making it even more hilarious. His violin playing, along with all the other players in the band was, as expected, agile and stellar.
Jerry’s non-Christmas numbers included “Ankara to Izmir” and “Who’s Your Uncle”, very well done, and John Oates contributed a fine “She’s Gone” (forgot how good that song was), along with a tribute to the Village and Dave Van Ronk with “He was a Friend of Mine” and a wonderful new song “1,000 Miles of Life”.
One of several show highlights was a live version of “Mo Sheamuseen” sung a cappella by Jerry and Maura. That song, sung in the Irish language, (boy, Jerry is brave) is form Maura’s latest CD, “Naked With Friends”, a 2009 Grammy nominee. That song was found in the encore. Mentioning Grammies let’s note, as Maura did, that Jerry Douglas has 12 of them. So he leads in taking home the hardware.
Besides “River”, Maura did grand versions of several old and newer songs from her catalog like “Trouble in the Fields” (apropos in these bleak economic times), “Blue Train” (Maura’s “country” song), and a rollicking “Spinning Wheel”. Each performer helped out with background singing (and in Maura’s case, sometimes, dancing) and the feel was joy of seeing great musical talents enjoying each other’s company.
The last time Jerry Douglas brought this kind of Troupe through NYC was 11 years ago when they visited another ballroom, the less elegant, Bowery Ballroom with Russ Barenberg, Tim O’Brien and Maura O’Connell, again. Maura mentioned that her friendship with Jerry goes back about 25 years, and you could surely tell from their on-stage patter. This time NYC was treated with a concert by immense musical talents and the Highline crowd clamored for more. The Highline is a very comfortable venue with an intimate setting to see such fine musical stars. Here’s hoping they come back again soon, maybe a “Very Jerry Easter Show”, who knows?