(in order of appearance):
Harry Shearer - narrator
Mark O'Connor - violin
Edgar Meyer - double bass
T-Bone Burnett - guitar, vocals
Jerry Douglas - dobro
Sam Phillips - vocals
Leo Kottke - guitar
Michael Penn - guitar, vocals
Patrick Warren - chamberlain
Van Dyke Parks - piano, vocals
Stan Freberg - vocals, monologue
Bob Neuwirth - guitar, vocals
Jeff Bridges - guitar, vocals
Victoria Williams - guitar, vocals
Joe Henry- guitar, vocals
Booker T. Jones - guitar, piano, vocals
Billy Swan - vocals
T-Bone Burnett has been the man behind the curtain on so many memorable projects that it's difficult to know where to start. First gaining serious recognition as a key player on Bob Dylan's legendary Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, followed by work with several of those same musicians in the under appreciated Alpha Band, Burnett has since come to personify a spiritually aware form of modern roots music through his own recordings. Burnett's low-key, often brilliant take on country/rock/folk emotionalism is also a key ingredient on albums by dozens of higher profile artists, as both producer and as a session musician. Many first discovered Burnett through his film work, notably the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers' 2001 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou, which he composed and produced. On March 7, 2010, Burnett scored an Academy Award for co-writing "Best Original Song," just one of his many contributions as musical director of the film Crazy Heart, which starred Burnett's friend, actor Jeff Bridges.
All of which makes this nearly three-hour 1991 radio Christmas special featuring T-Bone Burnett & Friends so utterly compelling. Compiled from a series of five performances that Burnett directed at the intimate back room (capacity 150) at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in November of 1991, these recordings not only present a fascinating roster of guests, but also capture the man himself at a pivotal time in his life and career. A newlywed, Burnett had married Sam Phillips earlier in the year. He hadn't released an album under his own name for some time, but production work had been keeping him plenty busy, producing albums for Elvis Costello, Maria Mulduar, Roy Orbison, Leo Kottke, Los Lobos, Joe Henry, Bruce Cockburn, and of course Sam Phillips, to name a few. At the time, he was also working up material for his next solo album, 1992's critically acclaimed Criminal Under My Own Hat.
Skinny and towering at 6' 4" without his usual headgear, Burnett would never pull off Santa Claus, but these Christmas at McCabe's recordings accomplish something more difficult by proving entertaining and engaging all year round. For every popular holiday song, there are several broken-hearted reveries, and even on some of the most recognized Christmas-themed songs, there's a dark undertow, sometimes achieved by inspired instrumentation alone or in the case of Sam Phillips and Victoria Williams, through utterly unique vocal deliveries.
Narrated by comic actor Harry Shearer the program begins by showcasing two of Burnett's accompanists, fiddle player Mark O'Connor and double bassist Edgar Meyer, who set the scene with the engaging instrumental, "Lime Rock." This serves as an opening to Burnett's initial set, which also adds Jerry Douglas on dobro. Introduced as the Nashville Cats, these are extraordinarily gifted musicians that bring out the best in everything they touch, beginning with a lovely reading of "River Of Love," a song that figured prominently on Burnett and Phillips' earliest work together. This is followed by a superb rendition of "The Long Time Now" (which would surface on Criminal Under My Own Hat the following year) and the unusual "House Of Mirrors" from his 1980 solo debut, Truth Decay.
Appropriately enough, Burnett's first guest is Sam Phillips and this is a particularly interesting sequence, capturing Phillips transition out of Christian music (she had recorded several Christian-rock albums under her birth name Leslie Phillips) into secular music, where her style and songwriting would fully blossom. Phillips, with Burnett accompanying her on guitar, opens with "Flame," a key song from The Indescribable Wow, which Burnett had produced. A humorous monologue precedes the first Christmas-themed song of the program, "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear." This is a remarkable performance, spooky yet strangely tranquilizing, thanks to Phillips unique minor-key delivery.
Next up is acoustic guitarist extraordinaire, Leo Kottke, whose Live At My Father's Place album Burnett produced. Two dazzling instrumentals from that album open this set, "Wiliam Powell" and "Theme from the Rick and Robert Report." However, it is Kottke's closer that is one of the ultimate highlight of this program, as he performs a gorgeous version of "Little Martha," perhaps the most beautiful composition ever written by Duane Allman.
Burnett next introduces singer-songwriter Michael Penn, another artist he had recently worked with. Penn is accompanied by Patrick Warren, who adds chamberlain (a keyboard instrument similar to a mellotron that adds string-section-like elements) on "Coal," followed by a haunting rendition of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."
At this point, Burnett returns, first with a moving version of Bruce Cockburn's "Cry of a Tiny Babe." Essentially a modern times retelling of the Christmas nativity scene, this is a heartfelt and touching performance. Another advance preview from Criminal Under My Own Hat follows in the form of "Every Little Thing," a collaboration written with Bob Neuwirth, who also makes an appearance later in the program.
Following an impressive double bass solo piece by Nashville Cat Edgar Meyer, Burnett brings out composer, pianist, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who performs an engaging version of "Wings of a Dove" on acoustic piano. This song would be further embellished on one of Parks' collaborations with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art, but also shines brightly in stripped down form.
Interjecting some political humor into the proceedings, Burnett brings up satirist Stan Freberg, who delivers a few thoughts on the election and then backed by a piped in recording of the Billy May Orchestra, sings a humor-filled marching song that laments the difficulty of finding a "Halfway Decent Democratic Candidate." What is most remarkable about Freberg's sequence is just how relevant it still is nearly two decades later!
Joining in next is Bob Neuwirth, who invokes the spirit of Ramblin' Jack Elliott in his traveling song, "Eye On The Road," before Burnett and the Nashville Cats perform three more numbers together, beginning with an exquisite instrumental version of "Silent Night" led by the mournful violin of Mark O'Connor. Then Burnett treats listeners to two additional numbers that would surface the following year on Criminal Under My Own Hat. First is the hopeful Burnett/Neuwirth/Elvis Costello collaboration "Its Not Too Late," followed by the anxiety-ridden "The Long Time Now," also written with Neuwirth.
The next sequence, although brief, is particularly interesting. Here Burnett brings up actor Jeff Bridges, nearly two decades before their great success working together on the film Crazy Heart. Bridges delivers a thoroughly delightful low-key reading of the Broadway musical number turned jazz standard, "On The Sunny Side of the Street."
The artist who dives deepest into the Christmas spirit is the Louisiana-born Victoria Williams, who Burnett introduces as "The Swamp Fairy." Williams, after humorously commenting on the scarcity of Christmas songs on the program, provides two in a style uniquely her own, beginning with "The Christmas Song," (which most people know not by title, but by its opening line, "Chesnuts roasting on an open fire") and closing with "Oh Holy Night."
At this point in time, Joe Henry was still a roots-rock and country traditionalist, just becoming known for the vivid imagery and the insightful character studies contained in his songs. Here are excellent examples of both, first with "Short Man's Room," which would become the title track of Henry's next album, followed by "Johnny the Conqueror," from the Burnett produced Shuffletown album a year prior.
Before Burnett and his Nashville Cats close out the program, they have one more delightful surprise in store in the form of Stax great (and organist icon) Booker T. Jones. This little set is fantastic and quite surprising as Booker T. opens with the Otis Redding classic that he had a huge part of, "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay," (not on organ, but as lead vocalist and acoustic guitar player!). It's a beautiful heartfelt performance before Jones switches over to piano to sing the deeply spiritual, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy."
To close the show, Burnett, along with O'Connor, Meyer, and Douglas first perform a haunting arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" before inviting Bill Swan up on stage. Swan contributes vocal harmonies to a pair of songs that serve to encapsulate the entire night remarkably well, first with the broken-hearted "No Love At All" followed by its diametrical opposite in a way, the far more hopeful "The Power of Love."
To end the program, Burnett leads the audience through a somber and reflective "Silent Night," a perfect close to one of the most original and thoughtfully produced Christmas programs ever.