There have been many Christmas concerts throughout the region this month, and still more to come this week.
It is difficult to imagine any that will equal or top the creativity, variety, musicality, emotional power and, yes, magic, of the return after three years of the B.E. Taylor concerts to Heinz Hall, Pittsburgh, Monday night.
The good news is that if you missed it , the second show is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, and if you are struggling to get into the seasonal spirit you will find no better option than this show.
Some of the Pittsburgh and tri-state area’s best musicians, joined by new musical friends from other parts of the country, gathered to help everyone “Feel the Love — Celebrating a B.E. Taylor Christmas.”
They succeeded admirably as they celebrated the life and creative spirit of the late Aliquippa native Bill “B.E.” Taylor, who guided these shows for almost 20 years, building a new holiday tradition for all ages at the Cultural District venue.
The singer-songwriter and band leader died last year at 65 after fighting inoperable brain cancer for 10 years with a smile on his face and his gentle demeanor seemingly always intact.
Many never knew he was ill as he continued to perform, exuding joy.
Leading by example
Taylor, a man of faith who led by example, not by preaching, easily was one of the most beloved musicians in the area.
For many years, his rock band finished at the top of the “Best Local band” annual reader’s poll in the Valley News Dispatch.
What makes the B.E. Taylor Christmas concerts different is the variety in which familiar, timeless, classics are presented in new ways via rock, jazz, pop, blues and Gospel and other genres, sometimes a blend of multiple genres, even humorous elements, in the same songs, without losing their essence.
Take, for example, “We Three Kings,” with its refrain of “Star of wonder, star of night/ Star with royal beauty bright.”
Multiple band members shared lead solo vocals, guitar flourishes and everyone put the Taylor touch on B.E.’s signature “Shine, shine, shine!” lines which he added to “We Three Kings.”
Meanwhile, guitar wiz Rick Witkowski, in bright holiday suit that made him look like one of Santa’s mischievous elves, told the audience, “We are going to shine for B.E. tonight” and took the classic into the disco realm, then broke into a rap about “B.E. looking down on us tonight” as the band made a valiant, laugh-producing attempt of chorus dancing, before returning “We Three Kings” to its spiritual foundation.
Veteran Pittsburgh DJ Mike Frazier of 3WS radio put the evening in perfect perspective as he welcomed the audience, telling them, “Seeing you all here for this reason is the answer to a lot of prayers.”
“From 1995 to 2015, each one of us came here for a spiritual booster shot,” he added. “This was a shot that was painless and lasted for a year, then we came back for another.”
B.E. would have been pleased
The return of the concerts is what Taylor would have wanted, he suggested. “If you met him once, you felt like you knew him,” Frazier explained.
“He instantly made you feel like he was your friend. Bill was about family, love and Christ. He made no judgment about people. When B.E. met you he treated everyone the same. He left us many things: his biological family, his musical family and we are part of his family, the family of man. Once you were here at one of his concerts you wanted more. Then it stopped. Tonight a new chapter is starting.”
A strong opening
The crowd roared its approval and the program opened with a tear-inducing video of Taylor and band backstage preparing for previous Christmas concerts, capturing the humor, the prayers, the sweet moments among band members and family.
And then Taylor himself sang the first notes of Monday’s show, video footage of “Do You Hear What I Hear” from a previous Christmas concert, while the band played live in real time accompanying him.
Such segments were tastefully and lovingly presented, but not overdone, throughout the evening with Taylor singing from previous shows while the band played in real time.
His son, drummer-guitarist B.C. Taylor, now of Nashville, who organized the show with his uncle, B.E.’s brother Dan Taylor, shared vocals with Jeff Jimerson (of Pittsburgh Penguins’ “National Anthem” fame), Rick Witkowski, Hermie Granati, stellar guitarist Anthony Rankin, Jamie Peck (keyboard, horns) and Herb Schweitzer (keyboard). Dan Taylor also sang with enthusiasm.
After “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which included a soaring instrumental, B.C. offered his own welcome to the audience, saying, “I can’t tell you how much it means to be back here and celebrating. It is exactly what we are doing. It meant a lot to my father.”
That launched the artists into an energized rendering of B.E. Taylor’s “Feel the Love of Christmas.”
Later in the show B.C. thanked the audience for “the gift you guys are giving me, hearing my father and playing with his best friends.”
After a lovely video presented B.E. Taylor singing his “I Will Remember,” against a backdrop of his growing up years via family photos, B.C. Taylor, his hand on his chest, said, “To hear my father sing touches my heart.”
Throughout the concert, song after song touched the collective hearts of the audience.
One of the many memorable moments came when, stage darkened, only the voice of B.E. Taylor could be heard singing the opening of “Oh, Holy Night,” then a video of him putting his own stamp on the classic at a previous Christmas concert came on the overhead screen.
It was a reminder of what the music world has lost.
As was tradition with a Taylor concert, guests added flavor and flair.
“Little Drummer Boy,” seguing from “Oh Come, O Come Emmanuel,” didn’t just offer some fine vocals, but also the Franklin Regional High School drum line marching down the aisles and onto the stage for some very tasty percussion.
Later in the concert, the colorful Ambridge High School steel drum unit took the stage as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” transitioned into a calypso number.
Always a highlight at a Taylor show was and remains the former Church-in-the-Round gospel choir, renamed the Dr. Curtis Lewis Memorial Choir now directed by Curtis Lewis Jr.
Dr. Lewis was a friend of B.E. Taylor’s and died a few months after Taylor.
The concert ended after two hours, without intermission, with John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” and artificial snow descending.
The line, “Another year over, a new one just begun,” took on new meaning for longtime B.E. Taylor fans hopeful that this indeed was a new beginning for the Taylor Christmas concerts.
Rex Rutkoski is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.