Jann Arden brought her Christmas Tour to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre for two back-to-back shows Sunday and Monday evening. The Southam Hall stage was loaded with musicians from the NAC Orchestra, as well as Arden’s core band of five who encircled her up front. She delivered two hour-long sets of many of her hits and favourites, peppered with Christmas songs from her A Jann Arden Christmas (2015) album. And in the tradition of a typical Jann Arden show, she had the audience in stitches with her dry wit, and her hilarious stories from start to finish.
The orchestra added a fullness and cinematic dimension to all the material that captivated the audience. One of Arden‘s early hits, “Could I Be Your Girl” took my breath away in its hugeness, while band member, Allison Cornell added her gorgeous violin solos and bright vocal harmonies into the mix. Next came the story of Anne Loree – the woman responsible for writing what became the biggest hit song for Arden, “Insensitive”: “She lived very close to me in my neighbourhood, and one day I was just walkin’ down the street and I heard this song coming out of the window and it was this song,” said Arden. “That was back in the late 80’s… and the rest as they say…”
Dressed in a rhinestone-trimmed sweeping red mini dress for the second half of the show, she finally donned her acoustic guitar for the achingly beautiful “Unloved.” It featured the lead and harmony vocals of Cornell (who now took to the mandolin) and of guitarist Graham Powell. Again, the orchestra brought a magical grandeur to the arrangement – even Arden commented tongue-in-cheek: “The orchestration sounds so good – how the hell am I going to go back to these five people?”
The Christmas material was a well-rounded selection of classics like “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” a modernized twist on “Little Drummer Boy,” a stunning version of “O Holy Night,” and some let-your-hair-down wailing blues on “Please Come Home For Christmas.” But my favourite of these was an original Christmas song she wrote when she was 17, “Make It Christmas Day,” which had a pretty minor-chorded melody and some nice counterpoint vocals during the chorus. Arden shared some of her cherished Christmas family memories including the time her mom dropped the turkey on the floor – and the liquid cheesecake fiasco. But through all the comedy, Arden reflected a deep and loving sentiment for her friends and family.
Which brings me to the story she told of one of her classic masterpieces, “Good Mother,” a song she wrote in ode to her parents. She wrote it in her car on the inside of a pack of cigarettes with an eyeliner pencil sometime during the late 80’s. “I still have it to this day,” Arden smiled. “It’s one of the most special pieces of paper that I own, cause it’s about two people that really championed me.” The string section and the building tribal rhythms took this song to majestic heights which resulted in the first standing ovation of the evening.
The encore included a compelling piece called “Counting Mercies”, from her last studio album, Everything Almost (2014), which Arden sang with strength and conviction as her voice rose and fell flawlessly. Arms slightly extended, she raised her head up to gaze at the audience seated high in the balcony section while she sang. Arden then waved goodbye to the audience who were on their feet again, leaving behind her songs, her stories, and her warm smile.
Jann Arden performed at the National Arts Centre on November 26 and 27. For more holiday programming, visit the NAC’s website.
For more information on Jann Arden, tour dates, to order her new book “Feeding My Mother”, or to pre-order her new album, “These Are The Days” (release date February 2018), please visit www.jannarden.com.