Sunday, December 06, 2009
The Sounds Of Christmas
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The Sounds of Christmas
Shannon Monk’s meteoric rise to a sure-fire sell-out ticket anywhere in Winnsboro may owe as much to her True Blue back-up band as it does to the effortless emotional tone of her torch singer delivery style or her interactive rapport with an appreciative audience.
Tonight, Dec. 6, 2009, at Winnsboro Center for the Arts, even Shannon’s narrative reading of Clement Moore’s poem, Twas The Night Before Christmas, rang with the rhythm of practiced nuance, embellished by unexpected musical sound effects: subtle riffs from George Gagliardi’s Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar, perky percussion from Rick Murray’s twin congas and mellow magic from Ben Scarborough’s electric upright bass.
“It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas,” was the pre-concert hype for tonight’s venture into the songs of this Sacred Season, an effort that might be compared with the emotional risk of asking someone for a first date or proposing marriage when the answer is not known in advance.
Within the first few minutes of the concert, however, Shannon introduced and praised the True Blue trio of musicians—Gagliardi, Murray and Scarborough--which involved Gagliardi often switching from guitar to piano, serving as a narrator for the event, and having previously worked out all the arrangements for the concert and even composed at least one of the songs.
Shannon set a challenging pace from the start when a Christmas medley showcased her mahogany voice to great effect, especially on Winter Wonderland: “Gone away is the bluebird, here to stay is the new bird,” lyrics that reflect New Deal sentiment from an earlier economic downturn. The “new bird” phrase actually refers to the blue eagle of the National Recovery Administration, one of FDR’s early efforts to ease the 1930s-era Great Depression. More than a few hard-hit people of today’s hard times would likely empathize with that song’s long-lost suggestion of economic optimism.
Decked out in a stunning black sheath dress of cotton and silk blend, with muted red trim, custom-made for her by super-seamstress Bonny Ramsey, Shannon called attention to the Winnsboro Center for the Arts gift shop, which will remain open for business through the Christmas season, before one of her highlight renditions of the concert, Do You Hear What I Hear, introduced first by just the stark sounds of Murray’s twin congas and Scarborough’s slightly muted bass until later joined by Gagliardi’s patented full-sound stroking of the strings on his 1980s vintage Gretsch Country Gentleman.
Shannon’s final lyrical line, repeated several times in Do You Hear What I Hear, left no one in doubt about the reason for the Season: “He will bring us Goodness and Light.” (A pin might have dropped at this point, but no one heard it.)
She followed up that vocal rendition with Let It Snow, a song that is perhaps a tad less mystical, but nevertheless open to multiple interpretations, “as long as you love me so, let it snow,” a sentiment that reminds us, with Mary Ellen Chase, that Christmas is much more than just a date: It is a state of mind! On this song, Gagliardi’s piano provides the perfect emphasis.
Tonight’s program promises that Shannon will be accompanied not only by True Blue band, but also by some of her Friends, and at this point, she introduced Harold Shelton to sing Silver Bells, with some harmony help from Shannon on the chorus.
A piano instrumental version of What Child Is This, by Gagliardi, expertly accompanied by Scarborough, featured his upright bass, topped with a red and white Santa hat, matching both Gagliardi’s Christmas-red jacket and Scarborough’s scarlet vest and multicolored Christmas tie. It was so successful that Gagliardi followed it with another piano instrumental, O Christmas Tree.
No Christmas concert would be considered complete without a medley of songs about Santa, which Shannon delivered in spades, including Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, just before a break for stretching and refreshments.
Gagliardi’s Gretsch kicked off the second set with an extremely jazzy, improvised version of Blue Christmas, made so famous in our time by Elvis Presley that many churches now offer Blue Christmas services for anyone grieving over some measure of loss or disappointment during this normally most joyous Season of the year.
Another selection by Harold Shelton’s rich, mellow baritone, The Christmas Song, painted a vocal canvas of traditional chestnuts roasting over open fires. Gagliardi sang Count Your Blessings to his own piano accompaniment and his original composition, Upon A Winter’s Night, a song he wrote to express old English sentiment in modern terms. The Ramsey Sisters sang the semi-serious song by Irving Berlin, Sisters: “Heaven help the mister who comes between me and my sisters, and Heaven help the sister who comes between me and my man.”
White Christmas, probably expected at any concert that calls itself a Christmas event, included two of the Ramsey Sisters with Shannon, who asked the capacity crowd to join in on this now-classic song by Irving Berlin, and this concert itself happily coincides closely with a national TV reprise of the movie of the same name.
A moving highlight of the evening came with Rick Murray and his 9-year-old son, Brennan, recreating a long-ago time in their lives when the father sang Christmas songs to his son. It concludes with hugs and their version of Away In A Manger. Rick also reads part of the Christmas story from Luke’s Gospel in the New Testament. It’s a segment to remember.
While True Blue is a band of extraordinary talent, and all the Friends on this night’s program are worthy of their billing, this crowd came to hear and see Shannon Monk in concert. During the first set, she sang mostly from a chair, with her music on a stand in front of her. But, in the second set, Shannon is mostly on her feet and is noticeably more animated. She has this crowd in the palm of her hand, and it’s begging for more.
But, we are nearly two hours into the evening, and Shannon concludes the program by asking her audience to join in on several well-known Christmas songs: Angels We Have Heard On High, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World and Silent Night.
On Silent Night, with the stage still dark, candles begin to appear in the hands of the evening’s performers and are blown out at the end of the song.
House lights brighten the room, breaking the spell for this full house of fans of Shannon Monk, who graciously accepts their rave reviews, but reserves her own praise for the True Blue band and Winnsboro Center for the Arts.
It’s a shame this concert was not filmed for DVD release, but there’s always next year!
“Remembrance, like a candle, shines brightest at Christmastime.”-—Charles Dickens