December 19, 2013, on assignment for Scene, I went to my first pop-country concert: Martina McBride’s “The Joy of Christmas.”
I checked, and Martina is not related to actor Danny McBride. In fact, McBride is not her real last name; I’m guessing she chose it for the alliteration, and maybe to plant a marriage fantasy in the hearts of male admirers. Come to think of it, the first time I heard her name was about 10 years ago when a co-worker told me he wanted to marry her. Guess it worked!
Walking into the Resch Center, my date and I passed a Y100 pick-up truck, blaring tacky pop-country out of the speakers in its bed. That’s when it hit me: I am entering an arena full of people I don’t really understand.
However, at least initially, that reaction was unfounded; inside, non-pop-country Christmas music played before the show, and for the most part, the event turned out to be a large, pop-country-free Christmas production.
Martina took the stage in front of her 12-piece band – acoustic guitar, electric bass, drums, piano, four back-up singers (two men, two women), and a four-piece string section (two violins, a viola, and a cello) – immediately setting the mood for an elegant evening. In front of a huge video screen, McBride donned a white, sparkling dress and sang very nicely. Lots of majestic hand sweeps and gestures along the way.
There was also a great deal of crowd involvement. During the band’s instrumental passage on “Winter Wonderland” a team of elementary-school-aged local dancers took the stage. Pretty cute! Following the song, MM went down the line of kids and asked questions, setting up maximally adorable answers. It was a unique little moment that was cool enough, but MM was far from finished with her audience.
Armed with a microphone while her band played pacifying light jazz, Martina ventured into the crowd to spontaneously chat with senior citizens who love her, in addition to little girls who, well, love her. To me, this went on way too long, though her superfans likely would have bought tickets for this segment alone, so I can’t disagree with the tactic.
So far the show was completely devoid of anything “country.” That’s neither a knock nor a compliment, just a neutral observation. It’s not like I expected a real-person version of “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” but it was interesting: nothing about the arrangement or performance of these classic songs would indicate that McBride is specifically country star. Perhaps the way she careens her voice up to high notes, or possibly the timbre of her voice, but not really. There were many shout-outs to veterans and members of the armed service, which might be inherent to the genre. Sonically speaking, though, there was nothing country about it, which I suppose says something of her range as a performer.
And just like that, here comes some original, non-Christmas music! The guitar is suddenly electric and bright red! Guitar player is on his feet! I didn’t see this coming, but Martina explains, “We tried to pick a few [of our] songs that tied in to the theme of the show.” In other words, here are two originals that mention God, performed in the vein of church bands who, you know, kind of rock.
Her singing, already very good, improves on these songs that she originally recorded. I’m making a note of this when MM informs us that the next number is from her upcoming album, and that they’ve never played it live before tonight, meaning I’m about to share a new experience with an arena full of people. Cool!
With anticipation high, the new song opens with nice music and pleasing chord changes. It’s appealingly mellow; solemn, yet interesting. It’s maybe even a little familiar sounding. It’s … it’s … it’s a cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”? Yep.
A confusing and extraneous choice. Oh, well. After that, Martina announced, “This next song has nothing to do with Christmas, but we like it, so we’re gonna’ do it anyway!” The crowd cheers loudly; she’s rebelling against her own show’s format!
This set up a song called “This One’s for the Girls.” I’m not a girl, but it felt like a highlight. It has empowering lyrics for females of all ages, and it seemed like she could have gotten away with really wailing the anthemic chorus, but maybe she had to save her voice for later. (The two suit-wearing, middle-aged male back-up singers singing “this one’s for all the girls” in grinned, baritoned unison was unintentionally funny.)
This set up a song called … intermission? Really? Well, it gave me a chance to catch up on some notes:
• I have a dying pen and am speed-scribbling in the dark.
• Drummer uses only brushes or mallets on Christmas songs. Uses sticks on originals.
• Martina has a nice smile.
• Jordy Nelson is two rows in front of me; John Kuhn is two seats down from him.
• John Kuhn cracks his neck when he’s bored just like I do.
• When a little girl in a Q & A session says she wants a toy cat, Martina says, “Well, that’s better than a real cat!” Crowd laughs. I internally disagree.
• Martina doesn’t talk to any men under the age of 60 during Q & A. Not sure if it’s because I am the only man here who’s under 60, or because our demographic historically makes for poor Q & A, or if it’s because we under-60 Green Bay men intimidate MM with our, uh, vitality.
• Audience laughs considerably when Martina says she needs some “liquid” following Q & A session, though she’s clearly only referring to her on-stage water. These small things continually alienate me at this show. What are Martina superfans called, and why wasn’t I born one?
• Great string arrangements. Interesting countermelodies and such.
• Bass player looks like Kelsey Grammar.
• Martina’s dresses, amazingly, get ever shinier throughout the night. Each one – there have been five, maybe six – seems to achieve optimal sparkle, only to be outdone by the next.
• Was she the “Sunday Night Football” theme singer? [No; that was Faith Hill. – ed.] • Back-up singers barely move.
• Kuhn and Jordy left at intermission. Last year at this concert, Jordy supposedly read “The Grinch” on-stage. What’s the plan for tonight?!
The second half starts and the band is stripped down and ready to kind of rock! Adios, strings! Electric guitar remains! “Run Run Rudolph,” with a piano solo! Not bad. A cover of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas” which was done very well followed.
I’m still not sure how to feel about what happened next. Shown on the video screen was footage of Elvis Presley from the awesome “’68 Comeback” show, playing “Blue Christmas.” After “E” sang the first verse, a digital Martina “walked into” the video and “sat next to him” to trade verses, while actual, at-the-Resch, Martina sang live for her lip-syncing digital counterpart. It was strange; the video was edited to make it look like Elvis was gazing at Martina. I love Elvis, but I don’t know if I liked this.
Anyway, next up: Kuuuuhn! John Kuhn will be the guest “Grinch” reader! “Y’all ready?” said John. YES, John, thought me.
Yet again, though, this was a creative idea with a result that didn’t fully connect. John would read a portion of “The Grinch” – he actually got awesomely into it, almost growling for the Grinch’s dialogue – then Martina would sing a verse, but she sang all sultry, where that song really needs to be creeped out. And she’d look at John while she sang it; was Kuhn supposed to be the Grinch? He seems like a good guy! Tight, high-pitched back-up vocals from the ladies were a nice touch, while the tool yelling “Go Steelers!” afterward was not. Such a tool…
A compilation of scenes from classic Christmas movies later, and the stage is reset, leaving Martina, the string section, and the guitar player, who’d gone back to his acoustic. This would ultimately be my favorite part of the show.
With a stained glass graphic on the video screen, MM worked wonders on the likes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” The strings … the strings! And her voice sounded great in that big ol’ place. Delicate guitar finger picking, and a pan flute solo that sounded straight out of “The Hobbit.” It was truly arresting. My awesome date almost yelled, “[Expletive] yeah!”
After a few songs in this lovely style the lights are turned out. “Please don’t fall asleep,” I pleaded with myself, “I’m really looking forward to Buffalo Wild Wings after this.” A bible passage came on the video screen, then more darkness, and then just Martina McBride is on stage, spotlighted. She closed the show with a solo, unaccompanied version of “O Holy Night” that demanded a standing ovation. O night divine, indeed: it’s wing time!
Well, not just yet: a barnstorming encore of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and, per Martina’s announcement, it’s a Christmas party! Full band is back! Kelsey Grammar is feeling this, and so am I! The people who were on their feet from the standing ovation stay standing! Or, not. Everyone sat again. What does this lady have to do, people?!
This was a Christmas show for Martina McBride fans, of which there are lots. Again, the show wasn’t really “country,” but that’s the (justified) gripe of classic country fans when it comes to, say, Y100’s playlists. The acoustic middle section was genuinely spellbinding. Overall, the show was nothing if not pleasant.
There was a lot about this concert that I didn’t understand. But what I really don’t get is how this many Green Bay people will brave cold, nasty weather, pay $40-$50, and go out on a weeknight to see a big musical act – Martina, in this case – yet said passion doesn’t translate to higher attendance at local shows on weekends, which often have no cover charge. Please, whatever you’re into, support local music! Go Pack!