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Branden James gets into the spirit at City Winery
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester

Celebrated out vocalist Branden James brought a chunk of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to Chicago City Winery Dec. 19. James has broken barriers as a contestant on America's Got Talent and created a remarkable reputation with The Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, and in concert at St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City for Pope Benedict XVI. This show was not about credentials and past glories but the soul of the Christmas spirit.

With the release of his new CD, Voices of Christmas ( MCON Records ), James filled the night with a mix of holiday classics and season appropriate standards.

The first section of the show hit an early climax with a riveting reading of Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up," followed by a series of duets with Miss Heart of Illinois, Marisa Buchheit. "A Prayer," from the movie The King of Egypt, and Sarah McLachlen's "Angel" were pitch-perfect, crisp and sincere. Alone again onstage, James' "unplugged" versions of "Silent Night" and "Amazing Grace" had a hushed quality while "Make You Feel My Love" stopped the show. Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," in duet with Buchheit, was haunting and lyrical.

The second half kicked off with the addition of a jazz trio and a lighter tone. "Jingle Bells"had a light swing to it, "The Christmas Waltz" was sweetly endearing, and James and Buchheit had fun with "Baby, It's Cold Outside." For the finish James delivered a patient and careful reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and the modern classic "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." All in all, it was a night to remember.

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