Martha Wainwright & Anna McGarrigle: Blue Christmas

Blue Christmas

Martha Wainwright: "It will be a mixing of spirits, and Kate will be there because it was her thing"
Photo: Sophie Samson

Martha Wainwright and Anna McGarrigle honour the memory of Kate McGarrigle with a very special Christmas concert

Every family has its Christmas traditions, and for the McGarrigle/Wainwright clan, staging a massive seasonal concert has been part and parcel of their holiday plans since 2005. The story goes that that year, sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the matriarchs of the multi-generational musical dynasty, had a CD’s worth of material, which Kate "hurried to market with," as Anna fondly recalls, ultimately getting Nonesuch Records to pick it up and release it under the title The McGarrigle Christmas Hour. A sprawling variety show featuring famous musical friends and family members seemed the obvious next step, especially for someone like Kate, whom Anna recalls as "someone who loved Christmas. She savoured every little pie crust she made, instead of cursing it."

That first show was so successful that it spawned an annual tradition which would continue through Kate’s years-long battle with clear-cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, until her untimely death in January 2010.

The first Christmas show happened shortly before Kate was diagnosed with cancer. "I think she knew something was horribly wrong," muses Anna. "But Kate, being the mother hen that she was, describing herself as a Lucille Ball character, loved to put on a show and have a big party. She was such a party animal!" Of course, it was also an excuse for Kate to visit with her friends and family, in particular, son and daughter Rufus and Martha Wainwright, whose respective careers were really starting to take off by 2005. Anna chuckles that a running joke in the family was that Kate did the most intense visiting with her kids on stage.

Martha admits, perhaps unnecessarily, that it’s going to be a huge challenge to put on this year’s Christmas shows without Kate. "She worked on these shows for months, her understanding of the songs was very rich and we’re going to try to live up [to that] and honour her incredible musicality," she says. Luckily, the troupe of performers – including Kate and Anna’s elder sister, Jane McGarrigle, Anna’s husband and children, Dane, Sylvan and Lily Lanken, and longtime Kate and Anna collaborators Chaim Tannenbaum and Joel Zifkin – have all worked together for so long and still remember the musical parts Kate assigned them. "It will be a mixing of spirits," Martha reassures, "and Kate will be there because it was her thing."

Anna weighs in, saying "I don’t know what it’s going to feel like. The thing is, even though [Kate is] not there, she’s reconstituted in Rufus and Martha. They’ve adopted her mannerisms. Rufus has taken on the I Love Lucy role, and I always say now that he’s like our father, he’s the responsible one," she laughs.

Martha is touched by Anna’s observation: "It’s all I’ve hoped for or wanted since Kate died… I’ve wanted to be as much like her as possible. Right after she died, I actually thought I would try to replace her in some way, thinking I’d read all the books in her apartment (because Kate was a great reader) and knit that sweater she had been working on. I quickly realized I couldn’t become her, but maybe I could become like her. Hopefully I was able to become more responsible, more mature, do things the way I think she would want me to, which is incredibly helpful, because she wasn’t a wishy-washy person. I listen to my mother a lot more, now that she’s gone."

As for Anna, despite having announced publicly that she would not sing alone after Kate’s passing, she’s signed on to these Christmas concerts (one in Montreal and one in New York City) because they’re tributes to Kate and they’ll benefit the Kate McGarrigle Fund at the MUHC. "They have a meaning," she asserts.

For Martha, having a show in Montreal with a strong francophone component – featuring such heavyweights as Robert Charlebois, Monique and Michèle Mercure and Chloé Sainte-Marie – was vitally important. "Last year was too early to do another Christmas show, because it was always Kate’s thing and it was too difficult," she remembers. "But then we sang with Charlebois at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste concert this year, which was a big deal to be the rare anglo artists invited to perform, so putting the show on in Montreal was really important for us, and it’s a bigger show than New York’s."

Montreal audiences should not expect a traditional Christmas concert, however. "There’s no Jingle Bells, no Santa Claus running around on stage," Martha cautions. "It’s a songwriter’s Christmas, with a lot of old songs Kate loved with ancient melodies, and a lot of her favourite songs from the Christmas album."

A Not So Silent Night:
Christmas with the Wainwrights and McGarrigles
At Théâtre Saint-Denis
December 11

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