"I hope you leave here feeling better than when you walked in."
That was Johnny Reid’s one wish for the crowd that attended his almost sold-out show Monday night, the first of his two-night stand at the Centennial Concert Hall. And it’s safe to say he got his wish; Winnipeg sure loves some Johnny Reid.
Canada’s answer to Rod Stewart is on a cross-country tour in support of his second capital-C Christmas album, this year's resplendent (if overwrought) A Christmas Gift To You. Helmed by Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Alice Cooper, Kiss), Reid’s latest ode to joy is a production. It’s as ornate and lavish as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, with Reid pulling out all the stops (strings! a choir! dramatic choruses!)
It’s also a more serious, sit-down affair. Reid’s first holiday album, 2009's Christmas, was all Santa Claus and ho-ho-ho, and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls. (You know, deck them halls and all that stuff.) This year's A Christmas Gift To You, meanwhile, is all about the solemn traditional standards. Linus would be so proud.
Happily, the show represented the best of both worlds, with a massive gospel version of Angels We Have Heard On High segueing directly into a rollicking, blues-romp version of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, replete with scorching piano and sax solos.
Indeed, the show was free of elaborate set pieces; rather, it was Reid’s amazing backing band, 11 members strong, that elevated the show to a spectacle. It’s likely no accident Reid’s album is titled A Christmas Gift To You; his arrangements frequently recalled those of Phil Spector’s famed 1963 Christmas album, A Christmas Gift For You — complete with girl-group backing vocals courtesy of a Ronettes-indebted trio of soul sisters. The musicianship on display was stunning.
Of course, Reid was no slouch, either. Charming and funny, the showman was in fine, audience-flattering form between songs, spinning yarns about early gigs at the Pal and making use of his intimate, soft-seater digs. (He even expertly and politely handled an annoying audience member.) Still, while Reid is a master of stage banter — no one is taking that away from him — he was almost too chatty, and the concert lost its momentum in the second half.
Reid’s at his best when he’s using those pipes to sing, and the audience was absolutely spellbound — particularly during crowdpleasers Dance With Me, A Little Taste of Home and his original holiday number, Winter Star.
There were a few cheeseball gimmicks, of course; Reid found a lady in red to give a spin during a medley of A Woman Like You/Lady in Red — two of the four songs he was allowed to sing during his first job, demonstrating karaoke machines.
And then there were moments that would melt even the most frozen of hearts, such as a heartfelt performance of Blue Christmas — done the Elvis Presley way, of course — which was his granny’s favourite.
He saved the best for last. A pair of showstoppers — a reverent O Holy Night and a soaring gospel medley of Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful were among the night’s shining stars. The main set closed on a high with an explosive cover of Chuck Berry’s Run, Run Rudolph, which had the house on its feet.
Reid took things down a notch for a stunning, stripped-down Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas before closing with a cover of Put A Little Love In Your Heart worthy of the closing credits of a holiday rom com.
Calgary’s Pear, country duo Lynae and Denis Dufresne, turned in an opening set as short and sweet as its name, a play on ‘pair.’
Assisted by Winnipeg guitar hero Murray Pulver (who learned all Pear’s songs in two days, by the way), the couple — who are alumni of Calgary’s famed fiddle ensemble Barrage — played a mix of originals and holiday favourites, including a fiddle rendition of What Child Is This? that seamlessly blended into Joy Williams’ 2000 Decembers Ago.
But the real gift was the closer: a breakneck mash-up of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal.