Released to coincide with his Songs For The Winter Solstice tour, this live recording from the Unitarian Church in Dublin finds the deep voiced Irish baritone dipping into the bag of Christmas chestnuts roasting by the open fire, kicking off appropriately enough with a sedate piano ‘Jingle Bells’ intro to ‘The Christmas Song’, proceeding into a crowd-swayalong ‘Winter Wonderland’. Then comes the first of the carols, a rather lovely, piano accompanied ‘Oh, Holy Night’, Lukeman soaring to the high notes on the chorus, followed shortly after by an equally spare arrangement of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ that has that midnight mass tingle. Not strictly speaking a carol as such, ‘All Through The Night’ is a traditional Welsh folk song, first published in 1784, usually the province of male voice choirs, though here there is perhaps more a touch of balladeering Elvis.
The standards get a further look-in with two much covered Bing Crosby classics, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ (though this was, of course, first sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis, Bing not getting round to it until 1962) and, inevitably, a stripped down, breathily crooned reading of ‘White Christmas’ complete with backing choir and what sounds like a tinkling glockenspiel.
It is not, however, only decorated with such familiar baubles. Accompanied by piano, ‘Northern Sky’, for example, finds him taking on the ruminative Nick Drake song and putting some vocal meat on the bones, while ‘Do You Realise’ is a cover of the Flaming Lips number from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, a song about the precariousness of life that serves as reminder that Christmas is also a time for remembering those no longer here. Turning quite literally to A Christmas Carol, there’s also a suitably spooked version of Aimee Mann’s ‘Jacob Marley’s Chain’ while, at the other end of the spectrum, has a golden ticket to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory to capture the magic of Christmas through child’s eyes with a befittingly show tune arrangement of ‘Pure Imagination’.
Northern Lights ends by embracing Beethoven with the jubilant strains of ‘Ode To Joy’ adopting the 1957 Paul Robeson rendition, the third stanza, sung in both English and German, being the original Schiller lyrics espousing universal brotherhood. I don’t see it supplanting the tried and tested Christmas collections by the likes of Bublé, Bing, Frank and the like, but it does offer an enjoyable diversion from the plethora of Nashville stars decking their halls and is certainly incentive to try and catch one of the shows.
Artist’s website: www.jacklukeman.com