A Michael W. Smith holiday tour is a familiar outing, and he’s often – actually, usually – joined by longtime pal Amy Grant.
While Grant indeed hit a few early stops with Smith on this year’s Christmas tour, she bowed out on the second round of dates to perform with husband Vince Gill for a seasonal residency at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
But, while Grant is always missed, Smith’s Wednesday night appearance at Atlanta Symphony Hall was still a magical gathering as he shared the stage with the impeccable Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and singer-songwriter Marc Martel.
The effusive Martel is known for his eerie vocal resemblance to Queen’s Freddie Mercury, which earned him a gig fronting the Ultimate Queen Celebration and also providing some vocals to the mega-movie-hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Smith is gracious to share the spotlight with Martel – previously the frontman for Christian band Downhere - who provided a heavy-watt smile and spark whenever he bounded onstage.
Clad in a cerulean suit, his eyes always twinkling, Smith opened the show in his traditional position – behind a black grand Steinway & Sons piano – to croon “Happy Holidays” and a “Smitty-fied” version of “Jingle Bells” in his distinctive nasal voice.
Along with the ASO, Smith and Martel were accompanied by a quartet of musicians and four backup singers stationed at the front of the stage, which was flanked by lighted Christmas trees - part of Symphony Hall’s elegant decorations, which also included several giant, twinkling wreaths around the venue.
Smith, 62, has released four Christmas albums between 1989 and 2014, and while the meat of the two-act concert focused – as expected – on songs from those releases (as well as a performance of the vintage “Emmanuel,” which Smith contributed to Grant’s 1983 “A Christmas Album”), time was allotted for music sans a wintery theme.
As Smith aptly noted, it would be negligent to ignore Martel’s Queen affiliation, so the full roster of musicians unleased a potent take on “Somebody to Love” with Martel’s emotive vocals (and yes, his resemblance to Mercury is undeniable) filling the venue.
Smith and the ASO also detoured from holiday offerings with the cinematic instrumental, “The Giving,” which was accompanied by a video of kids from Smith’s longtime favored organization, Compassion International, and the stirring “Heroes,” from his 2011 “Glory” album (active and retired military members stood for a heartfelt round of applause).
Conducting the ASO was Smith’s friend, David Hamilton, with whom he composed the title track to the 2007 Christmas album, “It’s a Wonderful Christmas.” Before playing the whimsical instrumental, Smith explained that he always wanted to write a piece of music that depicted the always-changing dynamics of the holidays.
The second act of the concert launched with the orchestral swoop of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” before Martel returned with an acoustic guitar to share his Christmas original, “How Many Kings.” The lush, melodic song – the title track of a 2009 album from Martel – highlighted his mighty, yet pretty, voice and his own knack for evocative compositions.
Whether Smith was tinkling the piano for a hushed combination of “What Child is This” and “Welcome to our World,” or Martel was providing the haunting vocals to “All is Well,” their musical pairing was deeply effective and their warmth an ideal preview of Christmas.
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