Music News & Reviews

Wynonna puts her blues-based spin on Christmas classics at Danville show

To paraphrase a classic song title, everyday might not necessarily be a holiday for Wynonna Judd. But judging by the gusto and spirit that drove her performance Saturday night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, the Kentucky-born country star supplied an array of Yuletide tunes with the same vocal nerve as the many country-pop hits she has chalked up during the past three decades. Leave to Judd not to discriminate.

Take the show-opening Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree. When the song reached the "deck the halls" reference in its chorus, Judd's left hand became a clenched first while a vocal roar slid between bared teeth. The seasonal mood was still there, but Judd looked as if she was ready to deck something (or someone) other than the halls.

The program was billed as "A Simpler Christmas." In essence, that was what she delivered — or at least, intended. The stage was adorned with candles, antique lamps, a Christmas tree and the like, giving it the air of a Cracker Barrel. Judd also employed a resourceful four-member band that included husband Cactus Moser. A mandolinist and very capable drummer, Moser figured in the show as much as a foil for Judd's lengthy between-song chats as an instrumentalist.

But "simpler" seldom translated into subtle or even gentle. At 51, Judd has lost little of the jackhammer potency of her vocal charge. That explains how familiar Christmas yarns such as Joy to the World and Jingle Bells were transformed into hardened, almost guttural blues-based jams. The same held true for some of the nonholiday fare. Judd's vocal grit didn't so much toughen an encore cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as wrestle it to the ground.

Granted, such spunk has long been at the heart of Judd's vocal style. The 1984 hit Love Is Alive by The Judds, the duo with her mother, Naomi, that started it all, and a solemn, stoic show-closing sing-a-long of Silent Night were the closest things to reserve reflected in the performance. The singer's 1992 solo career breakthrough single No One Else on Earth better reflected the concert's overall tone and temperament.

Such were the makings of this "Simpler Christmas" on a not so silent night.