John Berry’s Christmas, which The Carolina Theatre presented Nov. 26th in Fletcher Hall in downtown Durham, NC, was an early gift for Triangle theatergoers. The 47-year-old singer and storyteller, who was born in Aiken, SC and grew up in Atlanta, GA, is an extraordinary song stylist whose eclectic song selection delighted his hard-core fans and first-time concertgoers alike. He has a warm, folksy manner and a strong, clear country tenor capable of turning any song in the American songbook into a showstopper.

In his first set, which lasted 50 minutes, John Berry reprised some of his greatest hits, sang some songs from his forthcoming album “Those Were the Days,” and closed the set with a simply spectacular version of the Percy Sledge rhythm-and-blues classic “When a Man Loves a Woman” that left The Carolina Theatre audience mumbling “Percy who?”

The set began with “She’s Taken a Shine (to Him),” followed by vibrant renditions of the Al Green hit “Let’s Stay Together,” the Chuck Jones song “(You Talk About Heaven) We Were There,” Berry’s 1994 chart-topper “1994 with “Your Love Amazes Me,” “Something, Something,” Berry’s tribute to his hardworking dad “Forty Again,” “Standing on the Edge of Goodbye,” the Kerry Kurt Phillips song “Those Were the Days,” “Kiss Me in the Car.” Then Berry brought down the house—and sent his listeners scrambling to his lobby kiosk—with “When a Man Loves a Woman.”

Backed by his wife Robin Berry (keyboards, percussion), John Hall (keyboards), Andy Most (lead guitar), Chris Brown (drums), and Tyler Wrenn (rhythm guitar), John Berry put on quite a show His exuberant vocals soared over a poorly mixed first set in which the bass was turned up so loud that it drowned out much of the precision playing of Berry’s backup band.

The second set, which lasted a little over an hour, including the encore (a rousing bluegrass rendition of the old gospel number “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”), was mixed much better. John Berry sang a pleasing potpourri of Christmas songs, old and new and altogether wonderful. Beginning with a brief voiceover of the Christmas story, taken straight from the Scriptures, Berry sang “O Come All Ye Faithful,” a brassy version of the old African-American spiritual “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” an absolutely magnificent rendition of the contemporary Michael Peterson Christmas song “My Heart Is Bethlehem,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Celebrate This Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Let’s Fall in Love This Christmas,” “White Christmas,” Let It Snow,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Mary, Did You Know?,” and the best live version of the venerable hymn “O Holy Night” that these ears have ever heard.

The highlights in an evening of highlights included “Your Love Amazes Me,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “My Heart Is Bethlehem,” and “O Holy Night.” But it is “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “My Heart Is Bethlehem” that will send this reviewer to the music store, wallet in hand.

“My Heart Is Bethlehem” is the best new contemporary Christmas song that I have heard in a long, long time. Michael Peterson’s lyrics capture the essence of the season in a few simple but powerful lines: “My heart is Bethlehem. I will make room for Him. This humble dwelling place, made worthy by God’s grace. This child is still adored, because he still is born, deep in the hearts of men, to love and not condemn. My heart is Bethlehem.”

When introducing “My Heart Is Bethlehem,” John Berry said, “I think it’s the perfect picture of Christmas.” How true.

The Carolina Theatre: John Berry: [inactive 5/07].