Review and photos by Patrick Dunn
Whether or not you’re a fan of Christmas music, the classics are among the most timeless and best-known compositions ever written. With the ever-growing list of contemporary artists attempting to put their spin on a collection of these tunes, only a handful end up getting incorporated into a person’s playlist to be enjoyed season after season. A Very Magnetic Christmas, newly released by Morgan James is one that has what it takes to achieve this status.
For starters, James is a self-admitted lover of Christmas music, so motivation to create this album was not an issue. What makes this effort really standout has to do with the combination of two primary elements: James’ dedication to reviving the vintage feel of ‘70s Soul and her ability to communicate that authentic sound with a voice you’re darn sure to stand up and take notice of. Additionally, returning to Memphis Magnetic studios to build on the inspiration behind the band’s previous release (Memphis Magnetic) may just be the secret sauce that elevated the final product beyond traditional expectations.
Early in her performance to a capacity audience at the Dakota on December 15th, James commented, “We wanted to make a classic, soulful Christmas album and that’s what we did.” She seemed genuinely excited to be back in Minneapolis on this special stage as part of their first shows out since the pandemic began. “You know this is my favorite club in the country. If you‘ve seen me here, you know I say that and I ain’t blowin’ smoke, it’s true.”
Christmas was the theme and presenting some material from the new release was the first order of business. You could immediately identify from the opening measures of Do You Hear What I Hear how the Hammond organ, finessed by the skilled hands of Julius Rodriquez, paired with Doug Womble’s stylized guitar phrasing completely transformed this familiar church hymn into a bluesy toe tapper. The tune also functioned as a good warmup for James’ voice, with a natural build that ended on some beautifully sustained power notes. Introducing originals into this narrowly defined genre can be a tough sell, but Why Am I Lonely Tonight proved to be a clear standout in the set. The moody ballad is an area where James excels and this one has great feel and several key changes enabling her a prime opportunity to riff with precision and power throughout the top end of her vocal range. The crowd was noticeably impressed and generous in showing their appreciation.
Shifting away from seasonal music, the band took a break leaving James and husband Womble to perform alone together in a fashion they’ve exercised most over the past two years. James reflected on how being limited in their ability to gather as a band reminded her that if a song is great, all you need is a guitar and a voice. The duo backed this theory up in spades with wonderfully dynamic versions of Emotions (Mariah Carey) and River (Joni Mitchell). The full band regrouped for a mini-set of originals mostly from Memphis Magnetic, which included moments that allowed each of the players to shine prior to bookending the performance with Backdoor Santa.
James’ encore performance of Call My Name (Prince) of course held extra significance ringing out from this stage in Minneapolis and was one of the evenings best moments.
Do You Hear What I Hear
Long as I Got You
Why am I Lonely Tonight
Merry Christmas Baby
How Come You Don’t Call Me
I Can’t Stand the Rain
All I Ever Gave You
I Don’t Mind Waking Up
I Wanna Know
Back Door Santa
Call My Name
Hold On, I’m Coming