Shout! Factory // 1988 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // November 12th, 2011
We wish you a merry Christmas...
Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers started performing together at a time of political and social turbulence in the United States, and their original nine-year run together marked the only time in modern music history that folk music dominated the popular charts. If they had met at any other time, the band would probably be just a musical footnote, but the 1960's made perfect soil in which a folk trio with socially explicit messages could blossom. Like most of the acts from era, they are still beloved and their slew of hits are staples on "classic rock" stations across the country. They have also never managed to re-capture their peak fame, and despite the occasional new album, most people just want to hear their old stuff. Sadly, those days are no more. Mary passed away in September 2009 due to complications from her battle with Leukemia, leaving the trio a duo still raising money and awareness for social causes they still care deeply.
Taking a step back to a happy time, Shout! Factory's Peter Paul & Mary: The Holiday Concert was filmed during a 1988 benefit concert for the New York Choral Society and Orchestra, who also provide the backup for the trio. This special was originally aired on PBS stations during the holiday season and was available for awhile on VHS, but has been out of print for years. If you have an old copy on tape made during a fund-raising drive, now is your time to upgrade.
Given the general tenor of the '80s, there is a refreshing lack of cynicism or excessive political-correctness, as evidenced by menu song (also the first and last song of the concert) "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Many of the songs are unabashedly Christmas hymns ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Silent Night," etc), and there are a couple of Hanukkah tunes as well; beyond that, no one feels the need to try to homogenize the proceedings. If you are offended by "traditional" Judeo-Christian holiday tropes, this isn't the disc for you.
After nearly thirty years together, all three musicians prove they can still harmonize exceptionally well, and their on-stage chemistry is strong. However, for some reason they felt the need to have everyone's microphones at the exact same height, leading to some very uncomfortable-looking stooping from Peter and Paul. The chorus and the orchestra back them up with rich harmonizing. Extra kudos for whoever mixed it, since the chorus' 200 members could easily have overwhelmed the featured trio. Speaking of the chorus, they all carry hymn books, and even turn pages from time to time, but since everyone's attention is directed toward the audience, it's quite clear they have the songs memorized. Why have the books at all? Just for effect, I guess.
Personal highlights include Mary's rough-voiced solo on "I Wonder as I Wander" and the amusing "Marvelous Toy," which brings out Paul's sparkling-eyed sense of humor. It's always amazing to me when entertainers can perform something they've done a million times as if it's the first time.
On the downside, both "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Children Go Where I Send Thee" are much too busy, with each singer taking a stanza and the chorus interspersing throughout. The latter song especially stands out for its odd phrasing. Peter's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" also fails, even though he sells it as well as he can, because they chose to have him sing it in front of a handful of unappreciative children, most of whom look incredibly bored.
Just past the halfway point, they decided the audience wouldn't be happy without some of the band's hits, so they take a quarter of the concert to sing "Weave Me the Sunshine," "Puff the Magic Dragon," a cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," and "This Land is Your Land." It's an unnecessary sequence of songs that stops the concert's momentum in its tracks. At the very least, they should have interspersed them throughout the other songs instead of lumping them in a group. Better, they could have "holiday-ized" them by adding some extra lyrics to bring them into context ("Puff was so excited/To get his presents three/He shot a stream of fire/That burned down the Christmas tree!").
The concert regains its energy on the back end, finishing strong with "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "Silent Night," and "Hallelujah Chorus," wherein the trio steps into the stands and sings as part of the chorus.
Peter Paul & Mary: The Holiday Concert is shown in its television full-frame aspect ratio, and looks much like it would have back in 1988. It's a tad fuzzy at the edges, but there isn't a lot to look at anyway. Peter and Paul wear black and white tuxedos and Mary has a silver gown; the only color between them is Mary's red sash and belt. The chorus wears black robes, so, really, it might as well be in black and white for all the visual aesthetics contribute. The sound is also straight off of TV, with a basic stereo sound that is at least reasonably immersive when the chorus is in full swing. There are no extras.
Peter Paul & Mary: The Holiday Concert is a classic part of the holiday season which many people count on as annual viewing, something made far easier now that it's available on DVD. Even if you aren't a huge fan of the band, this concert is several steps above your average holiday music collection and would make a perfect musical backdrop for all the traditional holiday activities.
...and a happy new year!
Review content copyright © 2011 Josh Rode; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site