“Christmas is almost upon us!” Mariah Carey said to greet her audience at the Hollywood Bowl — which, OK, sure.
With more than five weeks (and one whole Thanksgiving) until the holiday, the veteran pop star brought her latest yuletide concert extravaganza — this one’s called “Merry Christmas One and All!,” not to be confused with 2022’s “Merry Christmas to All!” — to Los Angeles on Friday night for the first of two sold-out dates before the show begins its month-long crawl toward Carey’s hometown of New York City.
Was it feeling particularly Christmas-y outside the Bowl as a threat of light rain slowed traffic on Highland Avenue? You needn’t be the Grinch to admit it was not.
Yet at age 54 — and with her most recent studio album a half-decade behind her — Carey has unquestionably made Christmas her brand (even if she recently lost a bid to trademark her nickname as the Queen of Christmas). There are children’s books. There are TV specials. There are the Naughty and Nice pajama sets she sells on her website for $140.
And, of course, there is the annual return of her classic holiday single, “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 — an unparalleled chart feat that requires ample runway to make happen every year.
So you bet your mistletoe that Christmas had arrived inside the Bowl, where Carey emerged from an oversized gift wearing a sparkly red mini-dress to open Friday’s 90-minute production with a bit of the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” as a pair of ballerinas and a bunch of male dancers dressed as bellhops twirled around her. Backed by a sturdy live band and joined occasionally by a small choir, Carey proceeded to move through a briskly paced set of hymns, pop tunes and originals including “Jesus Born on This Day,” a sumptuous and rarely performed number from her 1994 “Merry Christmas” LP that she sang here as a duet with her 12-year-old daughter, Monroe.
Her frequent producer Jermaine Dupri appeared during “Here Comes Santa Claus,” along with Monroe’s twin brother, Moroccan, and a dancing Santa who roamed the stage dispensing gifts; “Joy to the World” was a churchy club jam that rode a throbbing gospel-house groove.
“Are we being festive?” Carey asked at one point, and indeed the crowd was well peppered with people in holiday garb of various kinds. “I’m loving the hats,” she said. “And the tiaras — the ti-ahhh-ras.”
Though her voice is no longer the miracle it was three decades ago on “MTV Unplugged,” Carey still sings live with an impressive blend of muscle and finesse: high and birdlike in “Oh Santa!,” which featured her signature whistle tone; throaty and yearning in her take on Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” She used “Silent Night” to showcase the intricate vocal runs that helped shape an entire generation of post-Mariah singers, and it was heartening to see that she continues to find pleasure in challenging herself.
But what makes the Christmas stuff work is the way Carey’s salty personality cuts against the saccharine nature of the material. Not long into Friday’s show, she summoned her glam squad onstage for a quick touch-up, telling the audience she figured that would be easier than going backstage and making a big deal of it — precisely the opposite of how it actually played out (as she clearly understood). Later, after almost slipping on a pool of someone’s “hair grease,” as she described it, she asked a crew member to come mop the stage, then pushed the mop around herself while improvising a song about it.
Modern pop diva-dom requires a careful balance of queenliness and folksiness, but nobody has perfected that balance like Carey — all the more impressive given that she started out long before social media codified so much of how we think about a celebrity’s relatability.
Near the end of the evening, she mentioned that “a couple people” had told her she should incorporate some non-Christmas songs into her set. “Actually, it was my agent,” she added. “I’ll just tell the truth.” That was her lead-in to a medley of oldies such as “Always Be My Baby,” “Heartbreaker” and “Emotions,” to name three of her 19 No. 1 hits. (Only the Beatles have more, with 20.) She also did full renditions of “We Belong Together” — a welcome demonstration, with its clever interpolations of tunes by Bobby Womack and Babyface, of why Carey was inducted last year into the Songwriters Hall of Fame — and her early-’90s power ballad “Hero.”
She encored, happily if inevitably, with the reason this is her season: “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” for which she’d changed into a bedazzled leotard with a sort of sexy-“Nutcracker” energy and which brought a shower of fake white flakes down onto the stage.
“It finally snowed in L.A.!” Carey said before the company took their bows. As she left, “All I Want” was in the low 30s on Spotify’s Top 50 chart and hadn’t yet reentered the Hot 100. But it’s still only November.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.