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MUSIC REVIEW

Odetta's voice, and spirit, remain strong

Odetta, who turns 76 on Dec. 31, still has a voice that is a force of nature. Odetta, who turns 76 on Dec. 31, still has a voice that is a force of nature. (STUART RAMSON/AP/ FILE 2003)

No Santa Claus. No mistletoe. No pleas to deck the halls. Fa la la la la. None of this belongs in an Odetta holiday concert. Her approach to the season, as laid out so vividly decades ago on her "Christmas Spirituals" album from 1960, honors the holiday spirit with reverence.

Odetta, who turns 76 on Dec. 31 (she could have fooled us), is a majestic figure in American music, a direct gateway to bygone generations that feel so foreign today. In her voice and stage presence are the echoes of Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Mahalia Jackson, and most of all Leadbelly, whose catalog she culled from heavily at the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday.

This wasn't just a concert, but rather a curated performance with prefaces to explain Odetta's connection to the music and its historical importance. In Odetta's mind, rural blues and work songs from slavery days convey more about the human spirit than, say, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Even if you didn't know the words to "This Little Light of Mine" and Leadbelly's tongue-twisting "Rock Island Line," Odetta compelled you to sing along in a communal spirit.

With just Seth Farber, on break as musical director of Broadway's "Hairspray," accompanying her on piano, it was exactly how you should hear Odetta. (It was so nice to hear Farber on a real piano, as opposed to the keyboards he played at Odetta's Newport Folk Festival appearance this past summer.)

Odetta's voice is still a force of nature -- something commented upon endlessly as folks exited the auditorium -- and her phrasing and sensibility for a song have grown more complex and shaded. On "Something Inside So Strong," every line was rendered with resolute precision, yet it felt like she figured out how to sing it as she went along.

She saved the best for last. A murmur rippled through the room when Odetta sang the opening strands of "House of the Rising Sun," which was punctuated by an a cappella segue into "When I Was a Young Girl." It was one of those pin-drop moments when no one dared to speak. Just as Odetta held the music in high reverence, the audience bestowed the same respect on her.

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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