Sunday, December 05, 2010


Sacred & Secular Sounds of a True Blue Christmas Concert

Click on any image above to view it in larger format and/or click on the arrow below to view the video of a small part of the concert.

Secular & Sacred Sounds of the 2010 True Blue Christmas Concert

Last Season, 2009, found Shannon Monk still riding the wings of a meteoric rise to sure-fire sell-out ticket status anywhere in Winnsboro, and praising her good fortune in encouraging several True Friends to form the amazing True Blue back-up band which is a perfect Christmas present for tonight’s December 5, 2010 Leading Lady who carries a torch for the music of her life, but especially for songs of this sacred season, one of which allowed her to open this, her second annual True Blue Christmas concert, by accompanying herself on one of her most prized musical possessions, a vintage Silvertone ukulele of the baritone persuasion.

Tonight’s concert, again at Winnsboro Center for the Arts, featured both Shannon’s tremendous talent and fetching two-piece costume of elegant maroon and black travel velvet, accented by her patented oval concert eyeglasses and high-topped boots that would soon set her feet a-dancing during some subsequent numbers.

Striding purposefully onstage, Shannon headed to the crown jewel of her instrument collection, the aforementioned Silvertone ukulele, constructed long ago of select mahogany, a stunning match for her own emotive, mature vocal tones, reminiscent of both rare rosewood and majestic mahogany itself.

Her decision to open the show by strapping on the vintage Silvertone, and strumming soft chords from recently installed Hilo strings, marked a confident departure from last season’s venue when Shannon sang her first set mostly from a rocking chair, switching for the second set to a more animated stand-up stance which allowed her not only to be more animated, but also to romance the microphone, a technique she had already mastered during earlier jazz-oriented concerts designed to showcase her true calling: torrid torch singer.

But her Christmas flirtation with the Silvertone was deliberately choreographed to be short-lived, perhaps even a stocking-stuffer tease.

After the first few bars of a combined Christmas Waltz/Most Wonderful Time Of The Year selection which functioned as both show opener and potential showstopper, the twin starkness of her nuanced voice, embellished only by soft Silvertone string vibrations from Hawaii’s Big Island, was interrupted by the sudden symphonic sounds of True Blue, the band that helped make Shannon locally famous: perky percussion from Rick Murray’s twin congas, mellow magic from Ben Scarborough’s electric bass, piano pyrotechnics from George Gagliardi, along with two guest performers, including the full guitar sound of Kurt Bittner’s 1990s Gibson and sensational brassy backup by saxophonist Richard Shanks.

The unexpected segue from acoustic subdued solo to the full, rich amplified band was a bit like switching a jukebox from Mozart’s Requiem to Beethoven’s mighty Symphony Number Nine—a jolt to the system, but a welcome one in the end, except perhaps for those of us in the full house who love the unique sound of a vintage baritone ukulele! Perhaps next year Shannon will do an entire number with just two instruments: her voice & her Silvertone!

But this season’s opener was sufficiently special for an appreciative audience that knew exactly why it was there, as Shannon caressed the microphone, warbling the lyrics of dreams coming true to a song in three-quarter time, wishing a Merry Christmas to an absent loved one.

Suddenly, yet another surprise, as the stage filled with background performers who helped put final touches on the opening number and would later grace the stage as Shannon’s guests, including Harold & Judy Shelton, the musical Ramsey Family (Carey, James, Emma, Johanna, Grace, Sarah Anne & Matthew), Brennan Murray (Rick’s son) and James Monk (Shannon’s & Michael’s son).

All of this was, of course, carefully choreographed by master musician George Gagliardi, who not only programmed the entire event, but also switched effortlessly from piano to guitar, served with Shannon as a co-narrator for the event and worked out all the arrangements for the concert and even composed some of the songs.

Shannon ended the opening combo number, emphasizing the sentimental lyrics (“most wonderful time of the year”) and watched the gaily costumed group depart the stage before beginning a Here Comes Santa Clause narrative bridge: “He’s making a list and checking it twice...Santa Clause is coming to town,” leading into a staged conversation with her son James whose punch line introduced him singing the still popular comedic Christmas song, All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.

Brushing back her concert-coiffed hair, Shannon moved into Merry Christmas Darling, a song that might very well have been inspired by someone just like her, and certainly a song with the kind of romantic theme that seems tailor-made for her unique vocal stylings. In this moving rendition, Shannon voiced the plaintive refrain that she and her loved one are apart, that’s true, but she can dream can’t she? And in her dreams, she is spending Christmas eve with the guy of those seasonal dreams. It is, after all, the logs on the Christmas fire, that fill her with desire to make this Christmas merry by spending it with the one she loves. On cue, the Ramsey Sisters appear just in time to assist Shannon’s finale for this number.

An instrumental selection followed, Baby It’s Cold Outside, a guitar duet, actually, featuring both Gagliardi on his Gretsch Country Gentleman model from the 1980s and Bittner on his 1990s Gibson. For this special number, Gagliardi remained seated at the piano, where his guitar was always either in use or safely propped to the side. Bittner kept his seat in the “orchestra pit” just below the stage.

Guest vocalist Harold Shelton, who is also musical director, with his wife Judy, at First United Methodist Church in beautiful downtown Winnsboro, reprised his acclaimed rendition of The Christmas Song, which he performed at last years first True Blue Christmas concert. His rich baritone is perfect for this Holiday standard about chestnuts, turkey, mistletoe and tiny tots with eyes all aglow, especially with a lighted Christmas tree on stage in the background. Complex guitar breaks were featured on Harold’s selection, which ended with his hands outstretched in a Merry Christmas greeting to the audience.

At this point, Gagliardi narrated his reasoning for including the Elvis favorite, Blue Christmas, in tonight’s program: How can it NOT be in a True Blue Christmas concert? It’s another favorite from last year’s concert, which was then an instrumental version, with Shannon this year interpreting the vocals perfectly, even bluer than expected, pulling the mike to a 45-degree love angle for radical romancing: “I’ll have a Blue Christmas, that’s certain, I’ll have a Blue Christmas; it’s hurtin’.”
(Blue Christmas was 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.)

But it remained for the next selection, Christmas Comes But Once A Year, to bring out the best of Shannon’s bouncy, bluesy, clipped vocal nuances, reminding one of Cher during her best bluesy years, performing a Sadie Thompson vocal-vamp on the TV series with then-husband Sonny Bono. It’s also this song which first sets Shannon’s dark concert boots a-dancing on this evening, as she moved back and forth, snapping and fanning her fingers to the raunchy rhythm when the lyrics call for putting out the fire. It is perhaps this concert’s supreme proof that Shannon is, first and foremost, a torch singer of the authentic school.

When Shannon introduces band member Rick Murray to sing Merry Christmas Baby, he approaches the mike clapping his hands, bringing the audience into the rendition with a call-and-response, semi-gospel-influenced clapping of each and every pair of hands in the house. Yet, his is an understated, un-dramatized performance, exactly on target to emphasize the seasoned breaks by both sax and guitars, with fabulous licks from bassist Ben Scarborough. Rick’s ending lyric caps the performance: “I’m all lit up, I’m all lit up, I’m all lit a...Christmas Tree.”

The first set ends with Shannon sorrowfully singing Please Come Home For Christmas, using her hands now and then in the manner of a practiced hula dancer and not unlike that of a song interpreted in American Sign Language for a non-hearing audience. It is not, technically, a show-stopper, but it does end the first set.

At this time, attention is directed to the Winnsboro Center for the Arts gift shop, which tonight features photography by Lindy Hearne, and which will remain open for business through, and beyond, the Christmas season.

The second set begins with a Jingle Bells instrumental improvisation called Jingle Bells Meets Tequilla, featuring the healthy lungs of Richard Shanks and the nimble fingers of Kurt Bittner who forms complex barre chords up and down the neck of his Gibson. It’s an instrumental tour de force for True Blue.

Shannon takes the spotlight again with the stilted heels of her black concert boots, dancing to the rhythm of Rockin’ ‘Round The Christmas Tree, especially to the great guitar breaks by Bittner & Gagliardi.

It is guest performance time again as Shannon introduces two of her “favorite short people,” Ramsey Children Sarah Anne and Matthew, who first perform a charming dramatic comedy sketch in which Matthew requests that Sarah Ann read him a story, and she begins with the standard Twas The Night Before Christmas, when Matthew interrupts and requests a “cowboy story.” Without missing a beat, Sarah Ann switches to Twas The Night Before Christmas In Texas, with Santa wearing Levi’s, a red shirt, a 10-gallon Stetson, and Matthew is satisfied. Then, they sing a duet, That’s What I Want For Christmas, which includes Matthew’s lyric request: “And for goodness sakes, do away with tummy aches.”

This is followed by Carey Ramsey and the Ramsey Sisters doing Count Your Blessings, which Carey dedicated to Bonny Ramsey, his wife, who has been battling cancer.

Shannon is onstage again, singing another Christmas love song, What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve, in which she caresses the microphone stand, cradling and stroking the mike lovingly during this standout performance.

A Lesson For Daddy is the title of a charming conversation and song, about the Baby Jesus, Away In A Manger, by Rick and Brennan Murray.

If I Had Been In Bethlehem is a reflective musical analysis of what might have been if the singers—Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne—had been there at the Nativity with the Holy Family. Written by Hearne and frequent co-writer, Hal Greenwood, an Episcopal Priest in Oklahoma, the song is punctuated by Lindy’s own finger-picking on a 1948 vintage Gibson guitar. The song’s sacred suggestions range far and wide, including: “If I were in the stable, I’d ask to hold the Child,” and “each time you ask forgiveness or pray that strife may cease, you open up your heart to the Prince of Peace.” Shannon tells the audience that it was Adler & Hearne who first encouraged her to sing in public. What a gift to us all.

The Ramsey Sisters and James Ramsey, who plays the cello, join Shannon for the strangely mystical Christmastime Is Here, a song that sounds otherworldly, almost as if could have been a madrigal. And the cello, one of my personal favorite instruments, adds a unique dimension to this evening’s concert.

Shannon then sings What Child Is This, a seasonal favorite which was included last year, but only as a piano instrumental by Gagliardi, accompanied by Scarborough, and which was a great hit at the time. This year, Shannon adds not only the mesmerizing lyrics, but her special styling which brands it as unforgettable to this audience.

This is followed by one of Gagliardi’s original compositions, The Christmas Child, which he sings to his own piano accompaniment and that of the entire True Blue band. He said he wrote the song as a reminder of the Reason for the Season. The lyrics do remind us, among other things, of how easy it sometimes is to need such a reminder during the hurry and scurry of shopping for Christmas gifts. But, as Gagliardi’s lyrics also remind us: It’s the Baby that has come to free us which fills us with hope, joy and the Reason for the Season.

O Little Town of Bethlem begins as an instrumental, with saxophone lead, followed by piano by Gagliardi, who then calls on the audience to sing along, a gesture which sets the stage for the next segment.

An old-fashioned Christmas caroling is on tap, as the stage fills again with most of the evening’s performers, who lead the audience in group songs, including Angels We Have Heard On High, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy To The World and Silent Night. On Silent Night, with the stage darkened, 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 True Blue 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.

Shannon concludes the evening with another original composition by George Gagliardi, I Believe In Miracles At Christmastime, a song with lyrics that dwell on the birth of a Savior, itself a miracle of high order, which leads to a kind of concluding punch line: “If growing up is losing that wonder, then call me a child, for I believe in miracles at Christmastime. As corny as it seems, I still believe in dreams, dreams that come true.”

And, one of my own favorite Christmas quotes: “Remembrance, like a candle, shines brightest at Christmastime.”-—Charles Dickens -END

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