Welcome Inn – A Phil Keaggy Christmas
Artist: Phil Keaggy
Time: 12 tracks / 47 minutes
Phil is feeling nostalgic. Well, don’t we all feel that way around Christmas time? Of course, most of us aren’t world-class instrumentalist/singer/songwriters: that’s why God gave us Phil Keaggy. That might sound somewhat extreme, but isn’t that what the whole ‘body’ concept is about in the church? We look to the arts to help us articulate the things we feel but can’t always express, and Phil Keaggy has spent decades producing music that moves us, inspires us, expresses the collective Christian soul, and gives voice to the nobility of the common believer and his inner life. It makes perfect sense then for Phil to offer Welcome Inn – A Phil Keaggy Christmas at a time of year when all that the Christian community has hoped for and trusted in is celebrated with family, loved ones, and more than a little nostalgia.
Amazingly enough, considering the length of his career, this is only Keaggy’s second official Christmas project (there’s the hard-to-find A Christmas Gift, but that was never intended for wide release), and the first to feature vocals on most of the tracks. In fact, except for the two stunning instrumentals (the warmly rendered, “In The Bleak Mid-Winter,” and the tour-de-force “Shades of Green and Red”), these songs all feature Phil’s warm, inviting, McCartney-esque singing, occasionally accompanied by daughter Olivia and son Ian, and in duet with Nina Landis on the should-be-standard, “Let us Go to Bethlehem.”
As one would expect, songwriting and performances are typical of Phil Keaggy’s output, which means virtuoso performances all around. Phil keeps things fairly basic most of the time, allowing the song to shine and keeping the technique fairly invisible, as if to highlight the message of Christmas. Still, this is a Keaggy album, and the man’s amazing technique and creativity shine instrumentally on the two aforementioned non-vocal tracks – on “Shades of Green and Red,” in particular, Keaggy taps, strums, picks, uses hammer-on and volume swell techniques, all the while incorporating familiar melodic holiday themes into the wildly inventive mix.
There are moments on Welcome Inn – A Phil Keaggy Christmas that will remind the long-time fan of moments from The Master and the Musician, Play through Me, and some of Phil’s other early recordings. It’s as if the years have been pushed aside in an effort to get back to basics – at least that’s what I hear in Phil’s voice, which is unprocessed and pure throughout the proceedings. Interestingly, when Phil’s children take over the vocals from their dad on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the similarities in vocal timbre are quite amazing.
Keaggy the songwriter has created a very traditional, but reverent and occasionally even worshipful Christmas album. Even when the lyrics start off with memories of gifts, family, and even holiday movies, as they do in “Best Christmas Morn,” the focus always goes back to the Christ-child. “Welcome Inn” becomes more than just the story of a welcoming spot for travelling strangers, but references the inn where there was no room for Mary and Joseph. “Father,” is a rare treat as Keaggy sings about the promised birth of the Messiah primarily to the accompaniment of Tom Howard’s piano. Unconcerned about clever lyrics, Phil’s gift to us this year is the story of the birth of the Promised One, told with beauty and simplicity.
“My heart is overflowing, with a melodious theme / and I sing my compositions for The King,” Phil sings on one track (“For the King”) - but the worshipful theme is also found on “And on That Day,” which is one of several songs to feature an understated, effective string section.
Once again handling most of the instruments on his own, Keaggy is helped out here by several friends, including Tom Howard on piano (and some string arrangements), John Catchings on cello and David Davison on violin (along with several other string players), and such surprises as pennywhistle (Jonathan Willis) and a most effective use of the duduk (a middle-eastern woodwind instrument) by Pedro Eustache on the amazing “Let us go to Bethlehem,” where all musical elements converge perfectly.
In contrast to the grand, orchestral project, Majesty and Wonder – (An Instrumental Christmas), which featured Phil with the London Symphony Orchestra, Welcome Inn – A Phil Keaggy Christmas is intimate and close – dealing with the wonder of how the Savior of the world becomes the Savior of the individual and the center of the family.