Subject: Waterloo Record Review
(Dec 6, 2006)
It used to be that Christmas at the Centre in the Square meant holiday concerts by Anne Murray, Roger Whittaker or Canadian Brass.
Now it means the annual return of John McDermott.
The Scottish-born, Toronto-based tenor is a regular performer at the Centre and, like Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe, he's always most welcome with his seasonal concert.
Monday night's concert confirmed the rule.
McDermott's holiday concert tour, which is taking him across Ontario through the first couple of weeks of December, reunites old friends.
There's musical director Brigham Phillips on piano and backup vocals, along with Jason Fowler on guitar and backup vocals, four-time Juno winner Phil Dwyer on sax, flute and clarinet and Ray Legere on fiddle and mandolin.
Newfoundland's Kim Stockwood, who just released her first holiday album, and Ontario fiddle sensation April Verch join McDermott on some dates, but neither will make it to the Centre.
McDermott's warm tenor is especially comforting at Christmas. Like a hot toddy in a big mug, it's something to curl up with in front of the fireplace on a cold winter's night.
Christmas has inspired an inordinate number of beautiful songs, both sacred and secular, that appeal to our deepest feelings of love, peace, family, friendship and faith.
As the title of his holiday album, Christmas Memories, attests, McDermott is also aware that the occasion is heightened by nostalgia and remembrance.
On the downside, emotions evoked by the Yuletide can be diluted by sentimentality and cynicism.
McDermott escapes the saccharin trap of sentimentality by choosing songs and carols that encapsulate the pure and sincere sentiments of the season.
After joking about the Toronto Maple Leafs -- he sings the national anthem at many home games -- he opened with the title track of his 1995 release Love is a Voyage, written by Irish songwriter Johnny Duhan about his family.
Life as a journey was a recurring theme throughout the concert.
Souvenirs, co-written by John Prine and Steve Goodman, was one of the secular highlights of the first set, along with seasonal songs by fellow Canadians Frank Mills and Marc Jordan.
The set included an instrumental medley in which each musician enjoyed the spotlight to the delight of the audience.
McDermott ended with a hair-tingling offering of Franz Schubert's Ave Maria.
He opened the second set with Kevin Evans' Christmas Memories. A portion of the last verse sums up McDermott's feelings about the season:
I am my father's son you know
And I sing on Christmas Day
I sing a song to days long gone
And those who've passed away
He nodded to the tradition of Christmas crooners with Mel Torme's The Christmas Song ("chestnuts roasting on an open fire") and honoured a couple more Canadian songwriters with Murray McLauchlan's Old Tin Star and Ron Sexsmith's Maybe This Christmas.
The highlight of the set was John McCutcheon's Christmas in the Trenches, which pays tribute to the first Christmas of the First World War when soldiers put down their weapons in No Man's Land to honour the birth of Christ.
McDermott dedicated the song to veterans. He didn't have to mention Afghanistan to make the song all the more poignant.
Then it was a lovely version of Silent Night, with the first verse featuring Fowler, a reminder that Franz Gruber's carol was originally composed on guitar.
He ended with a stirring O Holy Night.
He responded to the standing ovation with a heartfelt My Old Man and a singalong of Irving Berlin's White Christmas, which had audience members happily humming as they headed home.