Two Canadian musical legends are presenting an evening of Christmas singing, piano playing and storytelling at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre this week.
Singer/songwriter Rita MacNeil and composer/pianist Frank Mills are touring in support of their new Christmas album, “The Spirit of Christmas,” and will perform three shows: one tonight and two Wednesday.
MacNeil, perhaps best known for her signature song “Working Man,” has won numerous East Coast Music Awards, including the 2005 Lifetime Achievement Award. She is a member of the Order of Canada, has hosted her own Gemini-winning CBC TV variety show, and has starred in multiple television specials.
Mills’ piano composition “Music Box Dancer,” released in 1976, remains one of the most recognizable pieces of music, and reached No. 1 in 26 countries. He’s a three-time Juno award winner who has released 14 albums.
Enticed to the stage by MacNeil, Mills is coming out of retirement to go on tour.
“Rita and I shared the same agent, Brian Edwards, for years. He would phone me every Christmas after I retired 10 years ago, and he’d say, ‘Merry Christmas Frank, how are you?’ I’d say, ‘Merry Christmas Brian, I’m fine, and no,’” Mills told The Telegram with a laugh. “This went on for nine years, then last Christmas he called me and he said, ‘Before you say no, you better sit down, I’ve got something to talk to you about. It’s your 10th anniversary of retirement, 30th anniversary for ‘Music Box Dancer,’ 40th anniversary in the music business — this has got to be it. The best part is that Rita MacNeil would like you to come on tour with her.’
“I jumped at that opportunity.”
MacNeil said she had always been a fan of Mills’, and figured the pair would be a good fit to do a Christmas tour, especially since they are both known for their holiday shows. They met, went into the recording studio together, and everything just clicked, she said.
“The Spirit of Christmas” was recorded in Cape Breton, where MacNeil lives. The CD contains eight of each of the the two musicians’ most popular holiday tunes, as well as four new recordings. MacNeil’s pieces, featuring Mills, are “Hush Hush” and “Blessed Are.”
“Two of the tracks that I’m very excited about were written by Frank,” MacNeil said. “In ‘Whatever Happened to Christmas,’ I love the lyrics, and it certainly harkens back to an earlier time of Christmas when things were, in a lot of ways, much different. ‘Somewhere a Child is Sleeping’ has beautiful lyrics once again, and although I was a bit intimidated to take on songs by the artist, especially when he was there in the studio, it was great.
“I’m just delighted to be on the same CD with Frank Mills — it’s all about the coming together of two performers, who are enjoying what they do. I’m so happy he came out of retirement to go on the tour.”
MacNeil has had a busy summer, performing at a summer concert series in Cape Breton and hosting other shows. She plans to start working on a new album in the new year, and has no plans to retire in the near future.
“As long as I’m enjoying what I’m doing and still able to do it, I think music will always be a part of my life,” she said.
Mills, who spends his time farming, taking pictures and trout fishing, said he’s happy to be touring, but has no plans to come out of retirement once the shows are over.
MacNeil and Mills are making about 20 stops on their tour, which began in Summerside, P.E.I., Monday night and ends in Surrey, B.C., Dec. 18. MacNeil will start the show with her band, followed by Mills, solo, on piano, performing what he describes as a more intimate-type performance than what he’s done in the past. After the intermission, the pair will perform together.
“Away we’ll go to take the show home,” MacNeil said. “The repertoire will be a mixture of traditional and other songs, as well as songs from the CD — a blend of everything. It’ll be nice for us to get to know each other and share a great evening.
“Christmas is a wonderful time to be touring, because it gives a little hope to folks. I know Christmas isn’t always the greatest for everyone, but it is a time when hopes come alive, and the spirit of Christmas will hopefully be left with everyone when the concert’s over.”
MacNeil and Mills will perform tonight at 7 p.m., and tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets for the shows are $63.50, and are available at the Arts and Culture Centre box office or by calling 729-3900.