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Review: Jars of Clay serves up crisp, clean holiday fun at Busch Gardens' Christmas Town

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December

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Busch Gardens’ new Christmas Town extravaganza doesn’t need live music to win you over. The lights, décor and gee-whiz snow flume are plenty charming on their own. Handled the wrong way, a huge nightly concert could feel like too much flocking on the tree.

But the park did a smart thing in handing nightly entertainment duties to a humble and squeaky-clean headliner, Christian rock stars Jars of Clay.

With three shows per weekend from now through Dec. 23, it’s an unusual gig for one of the most famous groups in Christian rock, one that’s won multiple Grammys and even notched a Top 40 hit (Flood). And it’s unusual for any artist of their stature to play a dozen straight shows in Tampa Bay, making this residency feel more like a theatrical engagement than a series of concerts.

But on Friday’s opening night of Christmas Town, Jars of Clay didn’t overwhelm the Gwazi Park crowd with holly-jolly schmaltz and sentiment. They kept their 30-minute set relatively soft and simple, tasteful and tuneful, with a setlist that was diverse and even a little surprising. For anyone going to Christmas Town, it’s a great way to end each night.

You needn’t be a fan of Christian rock (or even Christmas music) to enjoy Jars of Clay’s performance. Heck, the band opened with Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmastime, which some have called the worst Christmas pop song ever recorded – only it was their own arrangement, a gentle, string-backed version that glowed like the two dozen Christmas trees surrounding them onstage.

Over one full album (Christmas Songs) and two holiday EPs, Jars of Clay have proven adept at finding new sparkles of life in the Christmas canon. The group’s original Hibernation Day (during which singer Dan Haseltine brought a couple up to snuggle on a couch on the stage) was a plucky bit of chamber pop; and their zippy cover of Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) – played with quirky charm on a toy piano, ukulele and banjo – was a refreshing breather from the dreadfully morose Death Cab For Cutie version you’ve probably already heard five times at the mall this year.

Jars of Clay did play Flood – who knows, this might be the only time many Christmas Town patrons will ever see them, so they might as well toss in their big hit. And they brought a pair of high school choirs to fill the stage for a rousing, far-from-sleepy take on Silent Night.

But no song was quite as gorgeous as their cover of John Denver’s Christmas For Cowboys, a clippity-cloppity lullaby that, with its gentle Celtic banjo, was admirable in just how little it adhered to anyone's preconceived notions of Christian or Christmas rock. It was a bit precious, yes, but so is Sufjan Stevens, and this Christmas song could easily stand alongside any of his.

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If Grandma starts to feel like she got run over by a reindeer, there are worse places to let her catch her breath than Jimmy Osmond’s Holiday Jukebox in the Stanleyville Theater. The youngest Osmond Brother, a Busch Gardens veteran, offers a twice-nightly, half-hour revue that’s every bit as earnest and non-offensive as you’d expect. 

Osmond, gregarious and genteel, mixed holiday classics (Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas), hymns (Mary, Did You Know?) and pop standards (The Way We Were) with Bazooka Joe-caliber jokes and a dusting of magic as he builds to a finale of streamers and soapy snow.

During the show, he brought out his four kids, who – you’re not going to believe this – are entertainers in their own right. Among them: Teenage daughter Sophia, whose sparkly skirt, smile and spunk on (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag undeniably conjured Taylor Swift.

“She’s 18 now, and I’m worried sick,” Papa Jimmy said. “I think I’ve purchased every weapon there is.”

That’s about as racy as it gets in Christmas Town. Here, there is no naughty. Only nice.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 1:30am]

    

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