Monday, December 18, 2017

New Christmas Music for 2017; Bundles of Joy from Blackmore's Night, Tom Chaplin, Cheap Trick, Dominican Sisters, Fantasia, Josh Grobin, Chris Isaak, Dave Koz, Leslie Odom Jr., Sia, The Supremes, and Many More



Photo: Howcast.com

It's that time of year... or, like the song says "it's the most wonderful time of the year." The days of waiting until after Thanksgiving to listen to Christmas music are long gone, at least for this writer. A few of the albums discussed below were actually released during September and October. I, at least, managed to wait until after Halloween to listen to the rest. Of the twenty one new releases that I'm covering below, three are special editions of previously released albums that contain new tracks, one is an expanded reissue, one is an enhanced remake, and the other sixteen are new.

"Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you!"

Blackmore's Night - Winter Carols (2017 Edition)
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Winter Carols was first released in 2006, containing twelve tracks. For the 2017 edition, all of the original tracks remain; there are three new songs, five live tracks from Minstrel Hall, and a new version of "Christmas Eve" recorded in 2013, plus three radio edits of that song. Musically, this is a largely acoustic affair, sounding at times like it might be Christmastime at the local Renaissance Faire, or maybe, on Game of Thrones if they celebrated Christmas. The sound is based around Blackmore's acoustic guitar and the lead vocals of his wife Candice Night, the subject of the wordplay that gives the band its name. Night's voice is reminiscent of Loreena McKennitt, and she is well suited for this material. But it's not all acoustic guitars, flutes, and pennywhistles. Some of the tracks allow Blackmore, formerly Deep Purple's guitarist, to unpack his axe. No it's not "Smoke On the Water," but it is great sounding mellow electric guitar. Winter Carols offers a nice mix of traditional Christmas songs and originals. The way that Blackmore's Night combines rock with traditional British or Celtic folk is positively artful, and definitely pleasurable.

Listen to: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful", "Ding Dong Merrily On High", and "Wish You Were Here"

Tom Chaplin - Twelve Tales Of Christmas
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Don't let anyone tell you that this album is (as Jack Black's character in High Fidelity likes to call it) "sad bastard music." It only sounds like that in spots. Not living in Britain, I don't get the daily dose of drama from the tabloids, but from where I sit Tom Chaplin has a lot going for him. All other things aside, he's been front man and lead singer of Keane, he has a penchant for melody, and he has a great falsetto. Chaplin brings his vocal and compositional gifts to Twelve Tales Of Christmas, his second solo album.

Most of the songs are original, however he does cover four familiar tunes, "Walking In The Air" (Howard Blake from The Snowman), "Stay Another Day" (East 17), "2000 Miles" (The Pretenders), and "River" (Joni Mitchell); I'll skip the rant about "The River" not really being a Christmas song. The production is very spare and the vocals sound intimate. "Another Lonely Christmas" sounds like something you've heard before, but that's the kind of songwriting that was typical of Keane. As I listen to the album, "London Lights" kept calling out to be a single. It's romantic and catchy enough to compete for the coveted Christmas number one (in the U.K.).

Listen to: "2000 Miles", "London Lights", and "Another Lonely Christmas"

Cheap Trick - Christmas Christmas
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The big news here is that Cheap Trick is still in business with three of the four original members: vocalist Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, and bassist Tom Petersson; drummer Bun E Carlos is still associated with the band but he ceased being an active member in 2010. By my count, Christmas Christmas looks to be the nineteenth studio album and it is their first Christmas release.

This record has all the high energy rock/pop that we've come to expect from Cheap Trick. There are several new original compositions alongside some rocking favorites like "Please Come Home For Christmas" (The Eagles), "Run Rudolph Run" (Chuck Berry), "Father Christmas" (The Kinks), and "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" (The Ramones).

Listen to: "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day", "Father Christmas", and "Christmas Christmas"

Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist - Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
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Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist is an order of nuns with thirty six congregations all over the United States. The following appears on their website,
"The Sisters will top off their 20th Anniversary year with a glorious new Christmas album Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. Recording in the ethereal acoustic at their Motherhouse in Ann Arbor, this sublime offering will include some of the Sisters' favorite carols as well original compositions which until now- have been heard only in their chapel each year at Christmas."
Their voices are beautiful, etherial is a good word; when they sing together they sound like an etherial choir. The acoustics of the recording almost sound as if they are singing in a medieval cathedral. The production is minimal, many of the pieces have no accompaniment at all. Some have pipe organs, such as the title track, and some have violin. "Carol of the Bells" starts with bells and when the Sisters start to sing you quickly realize that this is the way this carol was meant to be heard.
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring abounds with favorite Christmas songs. "Sleep, Little Jesus" is a song more commonly known as "Silent Night." "Away in a Manger" sounds particularly good. This is one of the very few Christmas albums to offer "Adeste Fidelas", which is "O' Come All Ye Faithful" in Latin. "Gaudete" and "Gabriel's Message" are two more highlights of the disc, which concludes with the more down to earth "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".

Listen to: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring", "Carol of the Bells", and "Away in a Manger".

Fantasia - Christmas After Midnight
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Fantasia Barrino caught my attention with the title of this, her sixth album and her first Christmas release, Christmas After Midnight. You can be forgiven if you don't know that Fantasia is the Grammy winning, platinum selling, winner of American Idol, the third season (2004). Fantasia is a talented singer for sure, but this album works for me on a couple of levels. First, you have some pretty terrific musicians deployed to give each track its arrangement and production in just the right measure. In addition, you have excellence in the song selection and sequencing. Fantasia has said that these tracks are among her favorite holiday tunes. Producer Ron Fair deserves a share of the credit for how well Christmas After Midnight turned out.

The album opens with covers of Christmas singles by Donny Hathaway ("This Christmas") and James Brown ("Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto"). With the third song we've entered a jazz club well after midnight. "The Snow is Falling" is a classic slow blues written by Leiber and Stoller and performed by Ray Charles and by Roy Hawkins before him. Next comes a swinging version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" featuring CeeLo Green as Fantasia's duet partner. I may have heard "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" more than any other one, but I don't think I've ever heard an arrangement that uses the flute, which results in a jazzy delight. "Give Love on Christmas Day" is a gorgeous take on the Jackson 5 Christmas single. It's just voice and piano as Fantasia delivers all the emotion contained in this Motown (The Corporation) composition. "Merry Christmas, Baby" follows with a deliciously slow blues treatment. Next up is a slow and soulful "Silent Night" with voice and minimal backing. The understated production is both somewhat surprising and hugely welcome.

This album has been thoroughly enjoyable so far, but now we move into my favorite part. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" offers up that late night feeling as the sax leads the jazz band and Fantasia strikes the perfect tone of warmth with just a touch of melancholy. Naturally, these are the original lyrics. A muted trumpet replaces the sax in "What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?", another slice of jazz/pop perfection. All the tracks up till now have set the mood. Next comes the payoff, a totally unexpected and totally delightful Frank Sinatra cover of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning". Granted, this is no Christmas song, but the genius of placing it here gives the song a whole new context. The muted trumpet still leads and is joined by brushed drums and standup bass as Fantasia intones the familiar melody. In all my years of listening to Christmas music, I have never heard anyone do "Wee Small Hours" in this way. This is a case where the first time is genius, but woe to the artist or producer who tries a copycat move. The denouement is a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". This album is so good that I am not even complaining that this is not a Christmas song. In the wake of Cohen's death, the use of this superb song on Christmas albums is inevitable. Fantasia does a solid "Hallelujah".

In this age of streaming and downloading, when artists are expected to release singles and EPs at the expense of albums, it's beyond nice to find an album that really hangs together. This is a concept album if there ever was one, and it needs to be heard as an album in its entirety. Way to go Fantasia.

Listen to: "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)", "Give Love on Christmas Day", and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning"

Josh Groban – Noël (Deluxe Edition)
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To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Josh Groban's Christmas album, Noël, a deluxe edition has just been released adding six bonus songs for a new total of nineteen tracks. With a street price of ten dollars or less, this is the bargain of the season. Here's why.

Groban is the gold standard of singers. His deliberate pace and his utter mastery of a song's lyrics as well as his vocal delivery takes songs that you have heard a million times and sings them with such conviction that you feel like you are hearing each song for the first time. The production on Noël is spot on perfect. On most tracks, Groban gets the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, or maybe a piano or a violin. Standing by, ready when needed, are a full symphony orchestra complete with pipe organ and chorus, or any subset thereof.

The album opener, "Silent Night", is a good example of songs that you will hear again for the first time. Groban is perhaps the only singer I can think of who can sing "Pa rumpa pum pum" from "Little Drummer Boy" and make it sound important. "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is mellow with the just right combination of excitement while slightly forlorn. Plus, it has brief interludes of holiday messages between military personnel and their families. "Ave Maria" is right in Groban's wheelhouse.

Brian McKnight guests on "Angels We Have Heard On High" and the way that the two vocals intertwine is brilliance. "The First Noel" features Faith Hill on a rather dramatic guest vocal; Groban turns in another performance that has you thinking that you never really heard "The First Noel" before. "Petit Papa Noel" shows that Groban sounds just as good singing in French. "O Come All Ye Faithful" gradually builds from the pipe organ to the full orchestra complete with guest appearance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It's quite a finish, and for the last ten years the album ended here.

Now we have six new tracks starting with "White Christmas". Tony Bennett joins Groban for "Christmas Time Is Here" and it's so nice to hear them do Vince Guaraldi's jazz standard from his soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas. Next up is a voice and piano version of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas". Groban takes the original's double edged tone and then sings the revised "more jolly" version of the lyrics. After that it's great to have Groban singing a modern composition like John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", modern meaning 1970. Even more modern is "Believe", the Grammy winning composition from the film The Polar Express (2004). Then finally, we go back to Groban's wheelhouse for a stirring rendition of "O Holy Night." So many of these performances are definitive that this album is truly one of the timeless classics of Christmas.

Listen to: "Angels We Have Heard On High", "The First Noel", and "Believe".

Chris Isaak - Chris Isaak Christmas Live on Soundstage
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Back in 2004, Chris Isaak released his first Christmas album, simply called Christmas. That same year, he appeared on the public television show Soundstage, performing Christmas music with his band and several guests. Although this show has subsequently been released on DVD, it has not seen a CD release until now.

Isaak's comfortable voice, his crackerjack band, and his refined combination of jazzy country, western swing, and rockabilly makes for one of the most enjoyable of this year's Christmas releases. The live performance gives this session a party-like atmosphere. The guests, Michael Buble, Brian McKnight, and Stevie Nicks are like icing on the cake. All sixteen tracks from the studio album get a live airing here, plus a nice take on "I'll Be Home For Christmas" as a bonus. All are popular Christmas tunes except for four new originals (new when Isaak's album came out in 2004). The originals include the missing someone at Christmas composition "Washington Square", which he dedicated to our troops and their families. Everything about this record works to make it the most feel-good Christmas release of 2017.

Listen to: "Washington Square", "Let It Snow", and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

Dave Koz And Friends - 20th Anniversary Christmas
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The new Dave Koz And Friends Christmas album, his sixth, is a most agreeable combination of jazz and Christmas music. The Dave Koz website breaks down the particulars.
After twenty years of sold out Christmas tours and five celebrated holiday albums within as many years, saxophonist Dave Koz has done his share – and then some – to help to make the season bright. This year he has reassembled his original holiday lineup – pianist David Benoit, trumpeter Rick Braun and acoustic guitarist Peter White with a stellar lineup of guest vocalists: Selina Albright, Javier Colon, Kenny Lattimore, Gabriel Orengo and Jeffrey Osborne. In addition, several of the tracks are enhanced by the West European Symphony Orchestra. This confluence of instrumental, vocal and orchestral talent creates the peaceful, familial, home-centered vibe that everyone seeks at holiday time.– for the making of Dave Koz and Friends 20th Anniversary Christmas, an album that features brand new recordings of classic Christmas songs.
The basic band on this album could rightfully be called a super group; they're the top musicians in the field that we once called smooth jazz before that term was done in by over-commercialization. The guest vocalists make this reminiscent of those GRP Christmas collections that came out in the late 90s and early 2000s. Right about here I would tell you all about what this music can do for you, but my feelings are exactly nailed by Koz.
“This is the kind of record that really sets a mood and stays with that mood,” says Koz. “The feeling and the image I get when I listen to it, is that quiet time after dinner when the kids are asleep, the fireplace is crackling, you’re enjoying an eggnog and you’re gazing at the tree with all the lights and trimmings. This music is perfect for that moment. It’s just a very chill, very beautiful collection of songs for that very peaceful time during the season.”
Listen to: "Joy to the Wonderful World (Medley)", "Christmas Time is Here", "The Home Medley: I'll Be Home For Christmas / Celebrate Me Home" [feat. Jeffrey Osborne]

Leslie Odom Jr. – Simply Christmas (Deluxe Edition)
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The good news is that they added four new tracks to Simply Christmas, a spectacularly good album by Leslie Odom Jr. that was first released in 2016. My only complaint with this was that it was too short. Here is what I wrote last year.
Leslie Odom, Jr. is a major Broadway star, who last year joined the cast of Hamilton and promptly won both a Tony and a Grammy for same. His solo album was released earlier this year and entered the Billboard Jazz chart at #1. The bottom line is that Odom has a terrific voice and he has just released Simply Christmas, eight tracks of jazz inflected Christmas magic. The arrangements are mostly Odom's voice and piano, occasionally joined by bass, drums, and sometimes a keyboard. The overall effect is chill, in the best possible way that Christmas jazz can relax you. The first six tracks are popular favorites, although I must lodge a complaint that he includes "My Favorite Things" (not a Christmas song). That said, he does such a fantastic job on "My Favorite Things" that it would sound great on any other album. He also makes up for this with his inclusion of the seldom covered "Merry Christmas Darling". This classic tune by The Carpenters was covered in 1997 by The Whispers (V.A.-'Tis The Season) showing its great potential as a soul song. Closing the album are "Winter Song", written by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson, and "Ave Maria", a religious number that doesn't see many Christmas albums, but Odom does an exquisite job with the vocal. This record is much too short, when it ends you'll wish there were more.
Four tracks doesn't sound like much, but now when you listen it feels like a complete album. I could question the song choices of the new tracks (The Who's "Christmas," "Edelweiss" from The Sound Of Music, “Please Come Home For Christmas,” and “The Christmas Waltz”), but Odom does such a fine job singing them, it seems senseless to quibble.

Listen to: "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", "Merry Christmas Darling", and "Ave Maria".

Sia – Everyday Is Christmas
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With no carols and no familiar tunes on it, this is an album that you might not know is a Christmas album unless you listen to the words. Well, Everyday Is Christmas has bells on it, but that's the only other clue. Working with her collaborator Greg Kurstin, Sia has written ten brand new original compositions for the album. Numerous styles and time periods bubble up including a bit of The Ronettes in the title track.

By any measure, this album is a major event. Over the last five years or so, Sia has established herself as a Midas touch songwriter whose name in the credits routinely rocks the top ten of the singles chart. This has made Sia rich and allowed her to indulge her wackier side, such as not wanting to have her face photographed. You don't read much about it in Sia's press these days, but last decade she was an up and coming singer-songwriter who often sang vocals for the British band Zero 7. I found her music then to have somewhat more substance than I've heard from this new incarnation. Then again, I'm not quite her target demographic these days, but I keep hoping that some of her earlier sensibility might creep back in.

As I write this, "Santa's Coming for Us" is #1 on the Billboard's AC chart, "Snowman" is close behind. Also, popular is "Candy Cane Lane" and "Ho Ho Ho", which sounds as if it might come from an animated movie - maybe some day.

Listen to: "Santa's Coming for Us", "Snowman", and "Everyday Is Christmas"

The Supremes – Merry Christmas (Expanded Edition)
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The good folks at Real Gone Music have reached back to the 1960s to reissue Merry Christmas by The Supremes. They've done their usual superb job of offering the original pristine mono and stereo mixes of the album, and much, much more. Here are all the details from Real Gone.
Their 1965 Christmas Album, Merry Christmas, Hit the Christmas Charts Four Times and Yielded Two Charting Singles, “Children’s Christmas Song” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”

Also Featured Jimmy Webb’s First-Ever Recorded Song, “My Christmas Tree,” and the Christmas Radio Staple “My Favorite Things”

In 2015, to Celebrate Its 50th Anniversary, Merry Christmas Was Expanded as a Digital-Only Release with Nine Previously Unreleased Tracks

Now, Real Gone Music and Second Disc Records, in Conjunction with Motown/Universal Music Group, Have Cooked Up a Christmas Feast So Elaborate It Can Only Be Called The Ultimate Merry Christmas

50 Tracks on Two CDs
16 Previously Unreleased Tracks

21 Other Tracks New to CD Including the Complete Original Mono Mix of the Album

Also Includes the Album’s Original Stereo Mix and a New, Never-Before-Heard 2017 Mix Premiering Previously Unheard Vocals and Instrumentation

Other Unreleased Tracks Include a Duet on “Silent Night” Between Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, and Diana/Mary Wilson Duet on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”

Curated and Produced by Andy Skurow and George Solomon, the Team Behind Motown’s Long-Running Series of Supremes and Diana Ross Expanded Editions

Newly Remastered and (on the Bonus Tracks) Remixed by Kevin Reeves

Liner Notes by Joe Marchese Include Commentary from Jimmy Webb

Numerous Photos and Memorabilia

The Ultimate Christmas Gift from the Greatest Girl Group of All Time, and the Christmas Release of the Year for Collectors
Listen to: “Children’s Christmas Song”, "My Favorite Things", and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me”

Various Artists – A Capitol Christmas Vol. 2
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Columbia may have had Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan, but Capitol Records owned the sixties by virtue of being the label of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Although the Beach Boys make a couple of welcome appearances on A Capitol Christmas Vol. 2, what's abundantly clear every time Capitol does one of these collections, is how dominant they were in the pre-Beatles era of the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. With a few exceptions, most of this pop legacy is all but forgotten by today's listeners, but where that music really shined the brightest was the Christmas records they made.

Capitol's vault Christmas collections have always been well done. This is the second volume of a new series called A Capitol Christmas, which celebrates their 75 year history. What makes this series a little different from previous ones is that it includes a wider swath of time. There isn't room here to list all of the artists represented, but a quick look at the track list will reveal the richness of the song selection. The sound is superb and this set rightly concludes with the ultimate standard version of "Auld Lang Syne" performed by Guy Lombardo & his orchestra.

Listen to: "Christmas All Alone" by The Lettermen, "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" by The Starlighters, and Guy Lombardo's "Auld Lang Syne"

Various Artists – Holidays Rule (Vol. 2)
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Holidays Rule Volume 2 continues a long tradition of Sony Music, and previously Columbia Records, releasing Christmas collections by their contemporary artists. There was a time when I would have bought this album just for the live versions of "Peace" by Norah Jones, recorded in NYC, and "Wonderful Christmas Time" with Paul McCartney singing his Christmas hit accompanied by Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. The selection of artists on this sixteen track collection run from The Decemberists to Judah and the Lion who do what at first seems like a relatively tame version of the "Christmas Song" (Chestnuts Roasting...), only to finish in a blaze of bluegrass.

Paul's daughter, Stella McCartney, is here on a duet with Barns Courtney. Paul's composition "Pipes of Peace" gets a very nice rendering by Muna, however I have to voice my combination of admiration and trepidation. I like the idea of framing a song like "Pipes of Peace" on a Christmas album, at least the first time. Here's hoping that copycats don't try to turn this into a Christmas song ("River" by Joni Mitchell, et al). My favorite track on Holidays Rule Volume 2 has to be "May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas" by Rosanne Cash. Written by Louis Jordan this version features a gorgeous electric jazz guitar solo by (most likely) John Leventhal, who also probably produced the track. The single biggest drawback to streaming and downloading is the lack of credits in about 99% of cases.

Listen to: "Peace -Live in NYC", "May Ev'ry Day Be Christmas", and "Pipes of Peace"

You might also be interested in the following additional releases from 2017
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Alabama – American Christmas
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This has all the same attributes that make Alabama a mainstream country fan favorite.

Hanson – Finally It's Christmas
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Girls of a certain age are still coming out to see Hanson, judging by their recent sold out tour. This all new Christmas album is their second and it's good enough to appeal beyond their fan base.

Patti Labelle Presents: Home for the Holidays with Friends
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Patti and an assortment of guests offer a mixed bag with a nice combination of jazz, R & B, blues, and pop.

Reba McEntire – My Kind Of Christmas
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A touch of old school country Christmas for 2017 that features Reba's inimitable charm.

98º – Let It Snow
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Another good boy band Christmas album, these guys have a serious Stevie Wonder fixation (in a good way).

Elvis Presley – Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
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Purists stop reading now. This remake of Elvis Presley's Christmas recordings, with assistance from the musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sounds better than it has any right to.

Gwen Stefani – You Make It Feel Like Christmas
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In which Christmas tunes get the full pop treatment by Gwen Stefani; includes her duet with BF Blake Shelton.

Lindsey Stirling – Warmer In The Winter
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Lindsey Stirling's violin brings together classical and pop in the service of Christmas.

1 comment:

Charlie Ricci said...

A great list. You've been doing a lot of listening. I have the Holiday Rules vol 2 and it is indeed John Leventhal playing guitar once again for Rosanne Cash.