A secular Christmas

Published December 1, 2000

THE SPECIAL Olympics have been part of the North American landscape for more than 30 years. For more than a decade, the achievements of the athletes have been celebrated in a series of Christmas albums under the banner A Very Special Christmas.

Late last year, just in time for the 1999 Christmas market – the latest in the series was released. The first from a live concert, it is made up of performances in a concert held in December 1998.

Musically, A Very Special Christmas Live follows the series pattern in that it includes a broad range of styles. The variety is clear from the first two songs. Rockin Around The Christmas Tree by Mary J. Blige and Sheryl Crow is a poppy jive, while Run DMC does a seasonal rap in Christmas in Hollis.

Most of the music is fairly straightforward in style. For instance, Jon Bon Jovi does Please Come Home For Christmas as a straight-ahead waltz with a beat. Similarly, his reading of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is a plain 4/4 tempo with a wall of sound undercore.

Eric Clapton is all over this album and this concert. He backs John Popper in the 12-bar blues Christmas Blues, and goes back to his first love and first excellence by doing up the old slow blues nugget Christmas Tears.

The Christian observer, though, will surely notice that seasonal music that actually mentions the birth of Jesus Christ is even rarer than was the case on the earlier studio albums in this series. There are only two sacred pieces on the entire album.

[pullquote] Chapman does a rearranged O Holy Night as a sprightly waltz in her trademark style, but the highlight is Vanessa Williams’ inclusion. In an evening filled with fun but disposable pop, her version of What Child Is This? is a stunner. A reprise of her version on 1992’s A Very Special Christmas 2, it gets a jazzy backdrop, and her often underrated vocal stylings fit perfectly.

Williams was disgraced in 1984 when she lost the Miss America crown after it was revealed that she had posed nude for Playboy. Later in that decade, she began a career as a singer of little substance. Quietly, though, she has become an actress and singer of repute in the past decade, and this treatment of the well-loved What Child Is This? is the album’s highlight.

By the time the evening and the album ends with an all-hands-on-deck rendition of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, the listener has enjoyed a diverse and fun seasonal album. Still, a more generous share of Christian music would have been nice. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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