CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Thursday night, Bob Thompson proved once again why his annual "Joy to the World" has become a tradition during the holiday season in Charleston.As always, it was a festive affair at the Culture Center Theatre. A bustling crowd, wearing Christmas sweaters and heavy coats, came in from the cold to celebrate with the show and wish the piano man and jazz bandleader a happy birthday.Before the first song was played, the audience sang to him and stagehand Lance Schrader presented Thompson with a cupcake and a single candle to help commemorate 71 years.Thompson told the crowd there was no place he'd rather be on his birthday than there, playing with friends, in front of an audience.For quite a few people in the nearly full house, there wasn't any place else they wanted to be either. During producer Adam Harris's warm up, he asked how many had come to see "Joy to the World" before.It seemed like there were a lot more hands up than hands down and a few among the seats said they'd been to all 21 shows."Back when they were free," someone shouted.People laughed. It was a joyous occasion.Thompson and his band turned in yet another fine addition of their Christmas show with a mix of well-known seasonal classics, as well a couple of obscure tunes and one original song, "Mittens," brought to the stage by this year's guest vocalist, Heather Masse."Mittens" was a delight and had a kind of roadhouse blues quality to it.
Vocalists change from year to year and Masse, a member of Canadian folk trio the Wailin' Jennys and a regular performer on NPR's "A Prairie Home Companion," with her beautiful alto voice brought a clear, dreamy quality to the songs she sang.She performed well with the band.As usual, Thompson gave his usual gang of four lots of opportunity to shine even right from the very beginning of the program with their first song, a French carol called "Pat-a-pan."Throughout the night, saxophonist Doug Payne, bassist John Inghram, drummer Timothy Courts and guitarist Ryan Kennedy soloed or were showcased in a particular song.Kennedy played a take on an Austrian carol called "Still, Still, Still," that the crowd seemed to like a lot. Payne could do no wrong. The audience seemed to particularly like him Thursday night, but it might have been people were just glad to see him. While he is still a member of the band, Payne left the area several months ago and "Joy to the World" was the first time he'd been seen in a while.
The 21st edition of the holiday program was a fine addition to the collection of shows over the years -- and came with a new bonus. In years past, "Joy to the World" was performed just once per year.This year, Thompson brings the show to Davis & Elkins College in Elkins Friday night. Saturday, "Joy to the World" goes to Morgantown.So, if you missed Thursday night's program or wanted to catch it again, all you have to do is do a little driving. If either of those two shows is anything like Thursday night, it would be worth the trip.