For the first time in 30 years, Michael Allen Harrison will be home for Christmas.
As a gigging musician, he's been home a lot in 2020 already. But this time of year is usually the busiest for the 62-year-old pianist. Outside the season, Harrison is something like Portland's John Tesh, a composer whose work straddles the genres of contemporary classical, New Age and pop. Once the clock strikes midnight on Thanksgiving, though, he turns into a one-man Mannheim Steamroller. His run of nightly holiday shows at downtown's Old Church routinely draw 7,500 people throughout the month. It's a tradition on par with the tree lighting at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the lights at Peacock Lane, and the choirs at the Grotto.
And just like all of them, Harrison is having to do things differently this year. He's only giving one performance, and it's already done—a pretaped concert that'll air on KGW-TV on Dec. 10.
It's not quite how he imagined marking his 30th anniversary as the Lawrence Welk of Portland. But Harrison isn't complaining. For one thing, he'll get to spend the holiday with his family instead of a room full mostly of strangers. And after three decades of having his career running essentially on autopilot, he's relishing having to scramble to make stuff happen again.
"I really feel like I'm on the hamster wheel again, like when I first started professionally at 28 years old," Harrison says. "There's a certain fire that happens when you're on guard where you've got to make it happen. You are unemployed until the next gig."
At least, that's how he feels now. Back in March, when the world first shut down, what Harrison mostly felt was panic. Getting gigs was never a problem for him—prepandemic, he'd play two or three times a week. It was easy enough that he'd never bothered with the trappings of being a musician in the digital age. Without any gigs to get, Harrison found himself effectively starting from scratch.
It didn't take long for him to adjust. He taught himself how to edit videos and began filling his once-barren YouTube page with solo performances filmed in his home studio. He also started a series of daily "anti-anxiety" music videos—originals and requested covers set over calming images, delivered to his fans' inboxes every morning.
But the Christmas shows still weighed on his mind. He kept a close watch on the state's shifting coronavirus policies—one of his piano students is the son of Nik Blosser, until recently Gov. Kate Brown's chief of staff, and he wasn't shy about nudging him for inside information. When it became clear that a concert with fans in the pews was not going to happen, Harrison went to his backup plan: a TV special.
"I know all the folks at all the stations, and KGW was the first one I called," he says. "Within three hours, the decision was made to have a Christmas special, and he gave me a date. All in one day."
With Christmas at the Old Church, Harrison's goal wasn't just to get up and perform his interpretations of the classic carols and Yuletide standards he's been playing for decades but to translate the live concert experience as closely as possible. That meant including all the segments regulars have come to expect: the Charlie Brown medley. The percussion breakdown on "Little Drummer Boy." Singer Julianne Johnson's gospel rendition of "Silent Night." At one point, legendary Blazers announcer Bill Schonely recites a poem and sings a verse of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." The show will air only once, but it'll be made available for streaming online through the end of the year.
Harrison can't say if it'll come close to replicating the feeling of being there in person. But this year, he knows retaining any small bit of tradition helps.
"I recorded a thank-you where I say, 'I hope we were able to bring you some extra joy,'" he says. "That's the whole intent."
SEE IT: Christmas at the Old Church airs on KGW at 7 pm Thursday, Dec. 10.
Other Ways to Hear Holiday Music This Year
Low Bar Chorale
Facebook.com/lowbarchorale. 7 pm Friday, Dec. 18. Free, donations accepted.
The drop-in choir's annual Cheer the Fuck Up showcase is still on—virtually, of course. The Christmas edition of the Facebook Live singalong show will feature veteran Portland blues singer LaRhonda Steele and mainstay comedian Jason Rouse, plus the debut of a "virtual chorus."
The Portland Revels
Portlandrevels.org. 7:30 pm Friday, Dec. 18, and Thursday, Dec. 24; 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 20. Pay what you will.
This year, the Portland Revels' ode to traditional song, dance and storytelling will take place as a webcast. The show will follow "the Revels Fool on a quest to find the light." At the end of 2020, that sounds very relatable.
Portland Gay Men's Chorus presents Snowed In
Pdxgmc.org. 8 pm Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, Dec. 12-13. Free, donations accepted.
The Portland Gay Men's Chorus has dubbed their socially distanced holiday stream "Snowed In," so we can all pretend we're trapped inside due to scenic seasonal weather instead of a pandemic. There'll be performances by PGMC's a cappella and dance groups and Pink Martini's Jimmie Herrod plus a group singalong.
Pickathon Solstice Party
Pickathon.com. 6 pm Saturday, Dec. 19. $10.
Music festivals might've been canceled in 2020, but Pickathon still spent the summer cranking out archival videos of past sets. Its solstice show will be live and interactive, featuring sets by local funk and soul band Outer Orbit and Portland-by-way-of-Arizona country singer Kassi Valazza. It's not holiday music per se, but maybe someone will bust out "Jingle Bell Rock."