GFS home movies: Michael McDonald’s This Christmas: Live in Chicago

Having already cultivated a sizable fan base through his work with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, as well as from his solo work, Michael McDonald has spent the better part of the last decade following two different muses – classic Motown/soul and holiday music.  In 2009 he added another entry to the latter with This Christmas, pulled from a concert featuring McDonald and his band in a holiday performance on the PBS concert series Soundstage.  It’s available on CD, but it’s the DVD edition I’m reviewing here.

I’ll just say right up front that if you are already a fan of McDonald and his trademark soulful baritone, you will not be disappointed with This Christmas.  But even if you only have a passing interest in the man and his work, it’s still a good addition to any holiday music collection.  For one, McDonald’s voice is still in damn fine shape as he closes in on 60 years of age.  It may not have quite the elasticity it did back in the day, but it’s obvious he takes good care of his instrument.

Backing up McDonald is a crack group of musicians, all of whom get at least a little bit of time in the spotlight.  The star of the bunch for me is Yvette Preyer, who totally owned on drums and provides excellent backing vocals as well.

The setlist itself is interesting, in that the holiday songs are bookended by a half dozen non-Christmas hits.  The concert starts with “It Keeps You Runnin'”, the Doobies classic that features a much looser arrangement than the original.  That’s followed by a pair of McDonald solo numbers – “I Keep Forgettin'” and “Sweet Freedom”.  They’re both very good, and the latter features a nice guitar solo from Bernie Chiaravalle.

The bulk of the video features Christmas songs both new and old.  While most of them are run through the typical McDonald funk/jazz filter and are enjoyable, there are some that stake new territory.  “Wexford Carol”, one of the oldest Christmas songs around, features a stripped-down arrangement with McDonald on guitar.  Its emphasis on percussion and some nice two-part vocal harmonies makes it one of the standouts of the set. I also enjoyed the Dixieland influence on “Christmas on the Bayou” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”.

The video wraps up with a trio of Doobies hits – “Minute By Minute”, “What a Fool Believes”, and “Takin’ It to the Streets”.  It’s a bit of an odd way to wrap up a Christmas concert, but how can you argue with songs like those?

As with 99% of holiday releases, This Christmas is not going to change the way you look at music.  But the performances are strong, the setlist is good, and it’s got enough musical wrinkles to please both McDonald fans and holiday music lovers.  You can’t ask much more than that, right?

(Disclosure time: Eagle Rock Entertainment and Universal Music provided yours truly with a free copy of This Christmas to review.)

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