The fight over the right way to celebrate Christmas — secular or religious or, to put it another way, Xmas or Christmas — may be all the rage on cable news networks and conservative Web sites, but there’s another national division that doesn’t get nearly enough attention: the one between those who take their holiday entertainment sweet and treacly, filled with glittery stars, wise men and pristine snowscapes, and the rest of us, who just want to spike the eggnog.
“The Spirit of the Holidays With Keb’ Mo’ ” falls squarely in the former category. The show was so relentlessly gentle and blandly ecumenical it practically lobbies to be turned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame or PBS holiday special.
It was even structured like an old fashioned holiday special: performed in a hall decked out in poinsettia and stylized stars, featuring a mix of yuletide-themed numbers, Mo’s original material and songs preaching peace, love and understanding (with only one tune from his recent OKeh release “Peace — Back by Popular Demand”). It even came complete with guest appearances and was easily broken up into three acts, to better accommodate commercial breaks or pledge drives.
It’s the latest in a series of moves that’s taken Mo’ from his debut as a Robert Johnson manque to his current status as a triple A bluesman. The transformation has served him well, at least in the eyes of the polite, well-heeled aud filling every seat in Disney Hall. In return, Mo’ serenaded them with the blues at their most bourgeois: “House in California” is about rising property values; “Prosperity Blues” moans about the problems of having too much money.
This eagerness to please led Mo’ to perform tunes like “We Call It Christmas,” the kind of empty sentimental claptrap that Colonel Tom used to foist on Elvis every holiday season. He was not helped by the problematic Disney Hall acoustics. Unlike previous amplified acts, Mo’ and his band made no attempts to rework their back line. But the amps and monitors had to be turned down so low that the music lost whatever grit it might have had, leaving the bass inaudible and the drum kit reduced to only snare and high hat.
Some energy managed to break through. “Merry Christmas, Baby” was turned into a Howlin’ Wolf moan, complete with a guitar solo that was a ringer for Hubert Sumlin, and “Tell Everybody I Know” found a rousing gospel groove. But more often the evening was soft-headed and bland, the kind of holiday production you thought went out of style with Perry Como and Bob Hope.