HOLLY COLE: A Night Before Christmas with the VSO

Main Artist: Holly Cole, vocals Featured Performers: Aaron Davis - piano; Johnny Johnson - saxophone and flute; George Koller - electric double bass; Davide Direnzo - drums

Conductor: Kenneth Hsieh and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Dates 18 & 19 December 2006, 8pm Venue The Orpheum Theatre

Reviewer John Jane

Holly Cole

With the back of the stage festively decorated with a full scrim, creatively hung to resemble four tall Christmas trees that changed colour with some very effective lighting, the Orpheum looked set to be the venue for the typical Christmas concert.

Holly Cole is hardly renowned for “typical Christmas concerts.” The Nova Scotian chanteuse, wearing a strapless gown in Christmas red with matching elbow length gloves, brought her high-calibre quartet and her own celebrated musical style to the slightly prematurely titled special concert, A Night Before Christmas with the VSO.

Ms Cole is much more than a cover artist and her wry sense of humour gives her a natural rapport with her audiences. Rather than duplicate other artists' original material note-for-note, she reworks popular standard tunes like Harold Arlen's and Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic” and the Doris Day fifties hit, “Que Sera, Sera” and makes them sound like they were written yesterday.

Cole got things moving with a refashioned interpretation of Ron Sexsmith’s charming “Maybe This Christmas” following it up with “Cry If You Want To” and a tongue-in-cheek rendition of “Zat You Santa Claus” that had VSO bass trombonist, Doug Sparkes helping to get everyone in a festive mood by suiting up in a Santa Claus outfit. The torchy treatment of “Sunny Side of the Street”, switching tempo in mid-song, allowed for some playful improvisation with her band.

The featured artist’s choice of Coldplay’s plaintive “2000 Miles” and “Shiver Me Timbers”, a tribute to her maritime roots, gave her audience a Christmas reality check. She showed that even Christmas has a dark side. Her brooding interpretation of these bittersweet songs underlined the loneliness and hardship that the season can bring.

But Cole also understands the need for people to indulge in musical tradition and nostalgia at this time of the year and there were plenty of well-seasoned favourites to make the audience feel warm and fuzzy. Even lightweight fares like “Me and My Shadow” which she dedicated to her dearly departed Belgian Shepherd, Rhoda, and the Eartha Kitt campy classic, “Santa Baby”, had the audience cheering.

The orchestra, under Kenneth Hsieh’s direction, blended perfectly with the singer’s repertoire, deftly enhancing Aaron Davis’s stylish arrangements, rather than overwhelming the artist in a wall of sound.

In contrast to the lush orchestrations, Ms Cole exhibited her reflective style sharing the piano stool with her longtime collaborator, Aaron Davis. Her heartfelt crooning was embellished only by Davis’s fluent piano fills on “Please Come Home for Christmas” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”

It was fitting to leave Johnny Nash’s inspirational “I Can See Clearly Now” until the end of the regular program. The song’s optimistic theme was a perfect counterpoint to the concert’s earlier cynical focus.

After a lengthy standing ovation, Ms Cole and her band returned to the stage for the peremptory encore, to perform “Christmas time is here” and a rocking, cool Yule version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” that may have been worth the ticket price alone.

In combining jazz-tinged recreations of her personal favourites with interpretations of some rarely heard tunes, Holly Cole offered something for everyone in this Christmas gift to her many Vancouver fans.

© 2006 John Jane