Now I know what some of you may be thinking...why review a Christmas concert in the waning days of August? After all, this is the season when bands play outdoors in ampitheatres, with sound systems that if the power were harnessed could light up the old TWA Terminal at JFK for a year [for you folks who travel in and out of JFK, it is now called Terminal 5 and is operated by Jet Blue], and they bring out all of the old material for a mass singalong, especially during the encores. Well the reason for this is that once again this concert disc again shows what was so special about Renaissance and in this setting how they rose to the occassion.
A little background: WNEW-FM in the good old days of radio would have an annual Christmas benefit show and would feature artists that were not just staff favorites but also favorites among the listener base. Or for that matter those whose other material may not be 'commerical' [operative term here] for some of the other radio stations in the region, but was just right for WNEW [which in itself also puts into perspective how really special the staff at WNEW-FM was].This particular concert had as the openers Stanky Brown [whose sax player shows up later on with Ren...more on that in a bit], Janis Ian. But one can tell that these folks were waiting for Ren to take the stage.
After some comments from Allison Steele and another DJ [I forgot the name of this one], 'Carpet of the Sun' opens the set. As simple and as sweet as the original sans strings. Annie sounds relaxed, Jon, Mickey, John and Terry all same. Even the in-between song chatter shows that they are really laid back and just there to play for the fans. 'Mother Russia' the next track shows up just as it did on the Carnegie Hall album, in full and is just as beautiful in this setting. Then comes the first of two new pieces from Novella [which was going to be released a few weeks after this concert].
'Can You Hear Me' is just amazing. If you have the sheet music for this you can follow along, because it is the full version with Jon and his synths taking the place of Richard Hewson's orchestral charts. This compliments Mickey's 12 string acoustic and Jon's Rickenbacker giving the full bottom/bass to the tune and Terry playing the softer percussion parts like on the record. And then there are Annie's vocals which are so relaxed, as in the lyrics written by Betty Thatcher were written expressly for her. And this could go on forever, especially since in the intro to the song, Jon does say that it is a rather long epic *S*. And the reception to the piece after shows they hit the right tone.
The next three tunes are what have become Ren classics. 'At The Harbor', 'Running Hard' and 'Black Flame' get the same relaxed treatment. It should be noted here that in later tours, 'Running Hard' was being featured as part of the back catalog material, but 'At The Harbor' and 'Black Flame' seem not to be as popular, which is odd. Both are incredibly beautiful pieces and here without an orchestra their playing takes on a certain innocence, almost as though the setting was not a large theatre but more like a small club.
The last in the set before the encore is 'Touching Once' and this is where the aforementioned sax player from Stanky Brown comes in. This is just as sharp as the album version, even with the haunting synth/organ bridge that leads into the driving jazz end. Granted, the sax solo on record is a bit muffled, but here it is all out in the open. What is really cool is that is sounded a little like a 12 bar blues type of solo and then when repeated with Annie and Jon's vocals along, it is just as powerful. You can tell this was well liked because the crowd does go a little crazy.
As for the encore, 'Can You Understand' follows the same relaxed pattern. From the opening chords to Jon's bass signalling that the rest of the band is going to join in. Even for the end of the show, this shows that Ren was truly in their element and Annie's vocals carrys the song to the point that one forgets there is no orchestra playing in the background. Her carrying of the bridge to the ending is just beautiful in its simplicity.
With this being a Christmas show, it does close with an audience singalong of 'Silent Night'. Leading up to that, this recording is much like those of us who go to see a baseball game in the minor league, in that you are seeing the game at its purest, most relaxed level. As in folks playing for the love of the game. Renaissance that night while playing for a cause, played for the love of the music and their fans returned that love in the ovations that are given. To quote a long ago manager of the Mets....'Amazin, just amazin...'