Canadian pianist Frank Mills was enjoying his decade-long retirement with no plans to get back in front of an audience — until his agent made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“For years, my agent would call me up to wish me a Merry Christmas and I would just say ‘No’”— in anticipation of the offer that would invariably come to go back on tour, said Mills.
“This time he said, ‘This one’s special. It’s a concert with Rita’ — and that’s all it took,” said Mills, to get him off his Vermont farm and onto a tour bus across Canada with Rita MacNeil.
Their Spirit of Christmas tour will stop at Red Deer’s Memorial Centre on Dec. 12.
MacNeil promises to deliver a heartwarming selection of Christmas songs, including two that were written by Mills — Whatever Happened to Christmas? and Somewhere a Child is Sleeping.
“They have absolutely beautiful lyrics . . . I’m a bit intimidated to tackle these songs, as I always am with other people’s music,” MacNeil admitted. “But Frank is a wonderful person to work with and the songs are a pleasure to do.”
Mills is equally complimentary about MacNeil, saying he’s long been an admirer of the singer from Big Pond, Cape Breton. “I have always known Rita as a great writer of songs and a great singer.”
MacNeil’s Christmas-themed song Gift of Love will also be performed on the tour.
The audience can expect to hear traditional carols as well — perhaps MacNeil’s favorites, Joy to the World and Good King Wenceslas, or Mill’s top picks Little Town of Bethlehem and The Huron Carol.
There will also be some non-seasonal selections, including Mills’ internationally known Music Box Dancer instrumental and his 1972 hit Love me, Love Me, Love.
Mills, 68, said he’ll be forced to sing that tune, but he generally likes to leave the singing to those who do it better. “I only sang that song out of desperation because no one else wanted to do it.”
The two performers, who have jointly recorded a Spirit of Christmas album, intend to do solo sets and then perform together after intermission.
MacNeil. who is 66, believes she and Mills share a similar attitude. “I love to be with the audience in a homey atmosphere. I know I appreciate a show that’s real, where you can share your feelings and what’s in your heart. I like to mean it.”
Mills added, “I always try to be sincere in my work and hope that people have a good time.”
While Christmas is not an easy time of year for some families, MacNeil said, “it’s a time where we can all hope again and I like to bring those feelings forward.”
MacNeil and Mills will perform at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $69.80 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre.