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Barenaked Ladies deliver family fare for the holidays

Barenaked Ladies, including (from left) Steven Page, Jim Creeggan, and Ed Robertson, joined the Boston Pops for a holiday concert that, for the most part, offered wholesome family entertainment. (josh reynolds for the boston globe)

Let's do the Grinchy part first.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" is about starving Africans. The 1984 Band Aid charity anthem is just not a funny song. Given the situation in Darfur, the lyric remains sadly current. How odd that Barenaked Ladies played it for laughs at Holiday Pops on Thursday night.

Frontman Steven Page mugged a bit and did a giddy little Snoopy dance , briefly joined by conductor Keith Lockhart. Then Page threw it to drummer Tyler Stewart to deliver the controversial "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you" line, drawing a cheer from the crowd.

Now, sure, Barenaked Ladies are nice guys and all -- heck, they're Canadian -- and I'm sure they didn't mean anything. This wasn't some sort of Borat-style provocation. They were just clowning around, and the audience didn't seem to mind. But what were they thinking?

Let's hope WBZ (Channel 4) cuts that number when the concert airs as a TV special next Christmas. Because the rest of the evening was state-of-the-art, middle-of-the-road holiday entertainment for the whole family, with BNL, the Pops, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, gospel singer Renese King, and the period-costumed Middlesex County Volunteers Fifes and Drums.

Barenaked Ladies are a good match for Holiday Pops. Both aim for crowd-pleasing fun rather than deep artistic exploration, and both deliver reliably, year after year. The night's musical menu was rich in traditional spirituals and holiday favorites over three sets, with the middle one devoted to BNL's alternately jokey and heartwarming songs.

Biggest laugh of the night: When BNL's Ed Robertson said, "I'd like to welcome to the stage Miss Sarah McLachlan ," and the crowd roared -- until he admitted that this was only a wish on his part, with no basis in reality.

Second biggest, more pointed laugh: When Page said, "In Canada, Boston Pops is a kind of cereal that was banned because of the artificial sweetener they use." Ouch.

The musical highlight was the Pops' lovely and focused delivery of Respighi's meditative, faintly exotic "The Adoration of the Magi," from "Three Botticelli Pictures." But mostly the evening was about carefree romps through old favorites such as "White Christmas." A special nod goes to the chorus, grinning and swaying and singing with gusto all night, especially after donning Santa hats and sparkly reindeer antlers.

Thursday's was definitely a Holiday Pops audience, full of families and office groups, not the dressed-down rock fans who've shown up for Pops outings with the likes of My Morning Jacket. Everyone's expectations seem to have been fulfilled by the time Santa showed up onstage to conduct the closing carol singalong.

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