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Michael McDonald: This Christmas - Live in Chicago (A Music Video Review)

Updated: Sep 27, 2023


Featuring Michael McDonald, Pat Coil, Bernie Chiaravalle, Vince Denham, Lanice Morrison, Yvette Preyer and Drea Rhenee.

Directed by Joe Thomas.

Distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment. 85 minutes. Not Rated.

A few years ago in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, there was a running gag in which the manager of a large electronics superstore (played by a pre-Glee Jane Lynch) would torture her employees by playing the same Michael McDonald concert video on all the store’s monitors over and over again during the day.

The movie is undoubtedly being way too hard on McDonald, who does have arguably one of the greatest blue-eyed soul voices ever and who is responsible for much fine music over a career that is reaching out towards four decades. However this little joke does point something very basic out; Michael McDonald has not been cool for many years – if he ever was.

This concert video is further proof, because there is nothing the slightest bit hip or cutting edge about it, however if you take it on its own cheesy terms, it is rather enjoyable. Full of strong singing (McDonald’s voice is still a wondrous instrument, even if it is a little more raggedy than it was in his prime), swinging music, diversity of styles, very capable middle-aged sidemen, a slideshow background and lots of music about the most wonderful time of the year (to paraphrase one of the many holiday standards which did not make the cut here.)

In fact, the concert has the undeniable scent of a PBS pledge week special – and, in fact, it turns out it was recorded for the PBS series Soundstage.

This show was recorded in 2009 a few years after his second Christmas album Through the Many Winters was released. He had also done a 2001 holiday disc called In the Spirit, and most of the holiday songs in This Christmas come from either one or the other of these albums.

McDonald bookends twelve holiday tunes with six old favorites of his own (four Doobie Brothers hits and two solo singles) as well as a bonus cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – which was undoubtedly chosen for its religious-sounding title and gospel-tinged choruses, but anyone who has ever listened to the lyrics knows that it is as far from a spiritual holiday piece as can be. It’s actually about love, sex, obsession and betrayal reaching a nearly religious fervor, but McDonald tries to camouflage this secular meaning by skipping the first two stanzas of the song and changing the arrangement so radically that the lyrics are nearly impossible to make out. (Clear enunciation has never been McDonald’s strong-suit, anyway – and this song is all about the lyrics.)

However, if “Hallelujah” does not quite fit the festive atmosphere of the proceedings (and perhaps that is why it is only included as a bonus track), the rest of the Christmas choices are more fitting and similarly adventurous. In fact, of all the hundreds of holiday standards which McDonald could decide to cover, six of the twelve songs included (assuming you consider a medley of “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” as two separate songs) were unfamiliar. At least a few of which – and I can’t claim to know for sure how many – were McDonald originals.

Musically, the Christmas tunes were rather diverse, from the reggaefied take of “Come, O Come Emanuel” to a zydeco-laced “Christmas on the Bayou” to an adventurous ragtime arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This musical quirkiness doesn’t always work – “Winter Wonderland” is tweaked so violently that it is just barely recognizable. Sometimes McDonald plays it straight, as well, such as on the modern R&B seasonal favorites such as the title track and Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.”

Also, knowing that the people will probably mutiny if he doesn’t touch on some of his hits, McDonald good-naturedly opens the proceedings with a spirited run-through of the Doobie fave “It Keeps You Running” as well as passionate takes on solo jams “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Sweet Freedom.” Then he closes out on a high note with a three-peat of Doobie classics, including an ecstatic “Minute by Minute,” a still wonderfully propulsive “What a Fool Believes” (a song which never gets tired, no matter how many tens of thousands of times you have heard it on the radio since its 1978 release) and a romp through “Taking It to the Streets.”

Of course, the holiday theme gives this DVD a very limited shelf life – very few people will likely pull it out to watch it during the rest of the year. Still, This Christmas is a very enjoyable – if just kinda sappy – look at a wily old musical pro who still has game.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: October 3, 2010.


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