Chuck Leavell's Bag of Holiday Chestnuts

Chuck Leavell - What's In That Bag?
(Capricorn Records)
3 stars (out of 5 stars)

Story by Tony Bonyata

Often referred to as "the sixth Stone", for his keyboard work he has done for the Rolling Stones' last three tours, Chuck Leavell has just released an album of holiday chestnuts that was originally intended as a musical Christmas greeting just for friends and family. But after Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden received one he persuaded Leavell to release it as a full length album. Leavell agreed but only if he could add a few extra recordings and rerecord some of it first.
With his seasonal greeting now repackaged and rerecorded Leavell sends his Christmas card entitled What's In That Bag? to the world.
Filled with rousing rhythm and blues, gritty New Orleans flavored funk and gentle instrumentals of Christmas classics Leavell offers up a hefty bag of gifts. With a talented ensemble of backing musicians, including the famed Muscle Shoals horn section as well as other legendary artists from the South, Leavell serves up two wonderful reworkings of Charles Brown's bluesy Christmas standards on "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home For Christmas", which also features a soulful vocal performance by the soul-funk diva Lisa Fischer (who also performed as backup vocalist alongside Leavell on the Stones "Bridges To Babylon" tour and is best remembered for her show-stopping performance on "Gimme Shelter").
Although music has always been one of Leavell's true loves (his musical credentials looks like a who's who of rock music - Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Gregg Allman, The Black Crowes, Aretha Franklin, not to mention the Stones and scores of others), within the last decade he has also made major strides as a conservationist and tree farmer. With his own tree plantation in his homestate of Georgia, it's only fitting that Leavell covers "O Christmas Tree", adding a swing uniquely his own to this timeless classic.
The album is not without it's faults, however, as the soppy "Bethlehem" and the middle-of-the-road mediocrity of the opening number "It's Just Not Christmas" attest to. Thankfully these shortcomings are quickly remedied by the funky, self-penned R&B number "Hey Santa" and the down-n-dirty roadhouse blues of "Even Santa Gets The Blues".
The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards credits Leavell with keeping an American Southern roots sound to the band - one that the late keyboardist, and "original sixth Stone", Ian Stewart incorporated into their early music. "Without that continuity," Richards admits, "the Stones would not be the the Stones."
The glue that Richards refers to can best be heard on Leavell's piano-driven holiday numbers such as "Joy Boogie", with it's spicy New Orleans rhythms, the serene "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "We Three Kings", as well as the spacious "O Holy Night" which showcases his passionate, resonating keyboards.
All in all, What's In That Bag? makes a fine addition to anyone's stocking.

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