CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After 20 years, Bob Thompson's "Joy to the World" holiday concert hasn't lost its glitter or shine. Thursday night, Charleston's gentle jazz giant, his band The Bob Thompson Unit and guest vocalist Catherine Russell helped usher in the season with a stocking stuffed full of wonder and delight.Like every other annual show, there are good years and bad years. The bad years for "Joy to the World," however, must be pretty far between. It may be safer to say there are good years and there are better years.Thursday's sold-out performance was easily one of the better years. The "Mountain Stage" pianist and his band sounded warm and full of good cheer. The song selection was a good mix of holiday standards and music with a spiritual message.As they are every year, each member of The Bob Thompson Unit was given the opportunity to shine with a solo or special song.Kennedy's take on "Silver and Gold," a song probably best remembered as being sung by a talking snowman in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," was enchanting, but Russell was the real present for the evening.This, of course, was the jazz and blues singer's second appearance in "Joy" and her third or fourth visit to Charleston. Russell appeared on the show in 2007, was also a guest (at least once) on "Mountain Stage," and in 2011, sang with Steely Dan when the classic jazz band played the Clay Center.
A second appearance on the Christmas program seems rare, but Russell was so well-received, it wouldn't be too much to hope for a third appearance in the next few years.Through songs like "Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Children Go Where I Send Thee" and a cover of Robbie Robertson's "Christmas Must Be Tonight," the Grammy winner owned every second she was on stage.This 20th edition of "Joy to the World" was a little poignant. Don Wafer, the show's original producer and the man Thompson credited with encouraging him to do a Christmas show, flew in from Atlanta to be part of the musical milestone.Wafer joined Thompson on stage and Thompson talked about how money had been so tight those early years, the crew had "borrowed" some poinsettias from a local hotel to decorate the stage. Thompson assured the audience that they took them back the next morning.Also, producer Linda McSparin, who retired from "Mountain Stage" in 2011, was brought back to produce the show one last time. A bit choked up, she talked about how amazed she was the show had done so well, but reiterated that she was handing her duties off to someone else.The good news is that, all things optimal, "Joy to the World" will be back again next year and for years to come.Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.