Christmas means a lot of things to a lot of people.
Wynonna brought with her a collection of both Christmas classics, her solo singles and an arena rock classic. All told, and thanks to her able and versatile backing band, it flowed fluidly between rock, jazz, folk and bluegrass. Perhaps country, the genre that made her famous first as part of the mother-daughter duo The Judds and then as a solo artist, was the most distant of music styles offered during the evening.
More than once she told the crowd it was her show, which implied she would be doing exactly what she wanted when she wanted it. She took time to share stories about spending time with her mom, Naomi, and half-sister, actress Ashley Judd. That wasn’t all Christmas candy levels of sweet, however, as she discussed her time spent in the Naomi Judd Correctional Facility in her younger days.
The prison line was told as a half true, half joke statement, and Wynonna was in an agreeable mood for bulk of the night. Decked in a sparkly top (two over the course of the night, as she made a wardrobe change halfway through) and shoes that were somehow even more flashy, the singer delivered a truly memorable show, sometimes stumbling over itself but just as often reaching tear-inducing triumph and joy.
Among the members in her backing band The Big Noise is drummer Michael “Cactus” Moser, who quietly played along for the night until Wynonna discussed the day this summer when she watched him crash into another vehicle while he was riding his motorcycle. He lost a leg in the accident. Had you not known that going into the show, you would have never known it as he sat behind the kit and kept time. Even if you did, I’m not sure how you could discern false notes or anything lacking from the sound.
Wynonna and her husband of less than a year spent several minutes chatting back and forth onstage. Some of it seemed scripted and even a bit trite. But less than six months ago, she watched him wreck. They heard it would be a year before he could perform again; he joined his band in late November, just in time for the beginning of the Christmas tour and months ahead of schedule. With such a remarkable recovery in the works, all such interludes are easily forgiven.
It wasn’t the only tender moment of the night. Three times, she interrupted her show to allow a zealous fan to join her onstage, either to deliver a present to her or pose for a photo. The last of three occasions ended with one of her guests openly weeping and heaping praises upon Wynonna. The singer regained attention by telling her “I have a show to do.” The crowd laughed, the show moved on and Wynonna had truly delivered a special moment, not just for her fan but for all those in the crowd.
The big bang of the evening, however, was Moser’s introduction. He received a standing ovation when he eased his walker to the front of his stage for an chat with his wife. He earned every clap he received. He would amble away from his kit a couple times during the evening, usually to join Wynonna and the rest of the band for single-microphone, bluegrass-style arrangements, such as during takes on “Beautiful Star of Bethelehem” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
The single-microphone setup was also utilized for the grandest moment of them all. In a night where Wynonna took creative liberties with many of the songs, changing speed and genre and vocal range, the closing number, “Silent Night,” received the straightest telling of them all. There were several reasons it might have elicited tears, perhaps from watching Moser stand up from his perch, a subtle act, but nearly unthinkable for him months ago, or from the sheer beauty of the combined voices, first from Wynonna, and then from the crowd, who held the final chorus as an a capella number.
A veteran performer knows to end on a high point, and certainly Wynonna accomplished that Sunday night. But, perhaps unknown to her, she almost didn’t.
Cheryl LuQuire, who lives in Nashville, served as the opening act. Her final song was “Merry Christmas Baby,” the same song Wynonna opened her encore with. How the two set lists weren’t vetted to prevent such duplication, I’ll never know. It was a bit of an embarrassment, and the crowd shuffled nervously as the opening bars of the song began for the second time. Complicating that fact was how much fun LuQuire’s version was. LuQuire was a hit — even if the crowd didn’t know how to react to an unknown — and she fits the bill nicely as a country act with healthy doses of sass. She’s recently signed to a new publishing contract and is shopping a record around. Don’t be surprised if you hear her name come up again.
Speaking of new acts, Wynonna talked about the days when performers such as Tim McGraw and Garth Brooks opened for her. She’s still got it, and her attitude relays how thoroghly she knows she’s got it.
Sometimes, music makes a pretty good Christmas gift. It’s all Wynonna had when she was younger and her family was impoverished. For one night, she gave the present of music back freely.
Wynonna set list: 1) Hallelujah [Leonard Cohen cover]; 2) Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree; 3) Let’s Make A Baby King; 4) White Christmas; 5) Only Love; 6) Mary, Did You Know?; 7) Santa Claus is Back in Town [Elvis Presley cover]; 8) Linus and Lucy [the ‘Peanuts’ theme song, originally by Vince Guaraldi Trio]; 9) Sleigh Ride; 10) The Christmas Song; 11) Beautiful Star of Bethlehem; 12) Go Tell It On The Mountain; 13) No One Else on Earth; 14) I Want to Know What Love Is [Foreigner cover];
Encore: 15) Merry Christmas Baby; 16) Silent Night