Averyfineline on the frontlines: Anchormen and DBQ

Location: Belleville, IL
Setting: St. Matthew United Methodist Church, mid-sized, formalish
Occasion: Gospel concert series (this one is dubbed “Quartet Heaven,” by DBQ and Anchormen, apropos the all-sing at the end of the program)
Average age guesstimate: 66
Opening act: none, unless you count the local mortician (Mort, I take to thinking him, having forgotten his actual name), who was also the emcee, or vice versa.
Attendance: ca 250 (generously)
Cost: $15 at the door; $12 in advance

Mort promises a night of “old style” music (the “good ole hard stuff”) - “none of that fancy stuff,” which is an interesting thing to say, considering fancypants groups like Gold City and Legacy 5 are on the St. Matt’s series docket later this spring. But nevermind. Tonight is all about old … old people, old music, old jokes, old skits … coming from 10 guys whose average age is about 27. I have come with a fairly open mind (insofar as I am a blank slate) about the Anchormen. And their set leaves me impressed with their potential but disappointed that they’ve glommed onto this classic quartet meme. From what I can gather, they’ve done so less because of any real ideological preference for “the good ole hard stuff” and more because it’s a plausible way of accounting for the noticeable absence of original tunes or compelling arrangements in their repertoire (evidently, doing it the old way exempts you from having to hire an arranger like everyone else). Indeed, by the time the Anchormen have clipped through their first four tunes - “Take my Hand Precious Lord” (a cappella), “Living Water,” “I know I’ll be There” and “The Fourth Man” - two things are clear: 1)the Anchormen have a clean, tight sound (best exemplified by “Living Water”) whose energy people respond to; and 2)they’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time on staging the set - the comedy bits, the one-liners, the role playing, the hamfisted antics - than they have singing. How much of this is their fault is not clear. The Anchormen have had historical problems keeping a group on the road, and this kind of instability shows up in other ways even when the personnel is temporarily in place; namely, the lackluster arrangements and undistinguished song selection. In addition to the songs above, the set included one tune that sounded original - “He Was Already Out” - and then “Just a Little Talk,” “Oh What a Savior” (oh my), and “Boundless Love,” the last two taken whole cloth from the Cats’s renditions. “Classic” is one way to describe this kind of set. “Uninspired” and “unoriginal” also come to mind.

As well as “youth.” The prevailing sense the A’s left with me was of extreme youth. It’s not just or even primarily their age, though they are young: the group’s most senior performing member is 31 (tenor Michael Hayes); the front man is 28 (Jason Funderburk, Danny’s kid); the pianist is 19 (Bryan Elliot). It’s also a question of development and the (im)maturity of their craftsmanship. Take the bass singer (Will Lane). He is pretty clearly the weakest musical link in the group, though he need not be. His voice is not unpleasant, though he is at times spotty and hollow. The real problem is that he is often simply MIA during songs. Oh, he’s moving his lips and probably actually singing, but he’s inaudible a lot of the time because he does this Ernie-Haase thing with his mic … yanking it way out in front of him on most notes above an F and then showing up for his part only when it establishes a pending resolution or tonic foundation - and even then he relies heavily on subwoofer roar to convey the idea of accurate placement of low tones, when in fact there’s just a bunch of resonance passing for a bass note (see also Gaither, Bill). This is a “classic” sign of someone uncertain of his tone placement, using mic play to kill time until he can find his pitch and then fade into it. With experience and training, this kinda thing can be overcome, but in the meantime it hobbles the collective product. Or consider Brian Elliot. He’s got more sui generis talent than perhaps any performing musician under the age of 30 in sg today. It just rolls off him and onto the keyboard in waves of easy, confident, authoritative playing. In fact, I’m inclined to say he sets the emotional agenda for much of what the Anchormen do. In the free-for-all sing along at the end - the “Quartet Heaven” part of the program, wherein the groups do various mindnumbingly familiar songs - he singlehandedly led the Anchormen through a delightfully knock-the-top-of-your-off rendition of “Dig a Little Deeper.” It was the A’s high spot all night - an absolute radiant three or four minutes of majesty - for which Elliot was largely responsible (at least the energy seemed to come from him and move to the other guys secondarily). Elliot’s work on this tune reminded me of the way Anthony Burger could herd the Kingsmen into line by sheer dint of the one-man soundtrack he’d lay down. Elliot is capable of an undiluted musical force that spreads out from the stage and into the audience, and on “Dig a Little Deeper,” it caught hold of the group as a whole - they sang an old song in a way that made if feel new and full of that word I’m so fond of right now … freshness. The effect was to leave the Doves looking slightly mawkish and insubstantial by comparison, if only for a moment or two. But that’s Elliot’s only performative setting: ECSTATIC! And while this hard-driving style works perfectly at a few well-placed spots in a program, it has an overpowering effect after while (he just completely tromped all over McCray Dove’s solo lines in “The Lighthouse”). What at first seems purely impressive, endearingly flashy, and boisterously appealing about Elliot becomes - after an hour so - slightly antagonistic. Elliot needs to learn the virtue of well-placed restraint and simplicity. Which is why I found myself welcoming Andrew Smith, the DBQ’s pianist. Though his style is a touch too heavily arpeggiated in general, he has an admirable sense for subtlety, for quiet nuance and the understated grace that come with Smith’s being just a few years older and road-wiser.

This brings us to the DBQ: most of the crowd was there for McCrae Dove and Co. And they didn’t disappoint, which is to say, they didn’t surprise either: the set comprised the mostly familiar litany of “classics” you’ve come to expect from sg’s reigning Nostalgists: “King & I,” “I’m Living with Jesus,” “Did you Ever,” “Moving to the Rhythm,” “Gonna Rise,” and “Just a Closer Walk.” This is the first half, a generally loungey 25 minutes or so - followed by a coupla piano solos. Then on to the second more histrionic half: “Lonesome Road,” “He Didn’t Throw the Clay Away” (the surprise of the evening, such as it is), and of course “Didn’t It Rain” and “Get Away.” Interspersed within this mix were various comedy bits, all slapstick and farce (best line of the night: “we all went to the same high school … David [Hester, bass singer] is a few years older than the rest of us, but we all got to graduate at the same time”). Indeed, between the two groups, this was perhaps the most schticky evening of music I’ve ever encountered. Beyond these two groups transforming a perfectly staid Methodist establishment into a poor man’s Chuckle Hut, a few things struck me about the DBQ’s set: One, David Hester possesses an easy, full range of bass tones … and he is there all the time. Two, McCray Dove’s intonation continues to widen, approaching part-the-Red-Sea proportions. At times, deciphering his pronunciation was like playing a word scramble: “fine stately mansions” sounds like “pine stained stanchions” … that kinda thing. This, set over against his slightly hectoring, half-jokey half-serious bullying of the audience (”DID YOU LIKE THAT? DID YOU REALLY LIKE IT?!”) and his persistently unconvincing self-deprecation (words to the effect of “I didn’t sing that worth nothing” or “if you ever wondered what it was like to have to sing sick, this is it” even though of course he sounded fine) … all this creates an asymmetry to the set, like watching one of those old radio performers alternatively inhabit diametrically opposite roles one right after the other without warning of the switch (Dove the blustery bumpkin, Dove the itinerant evangelist, Dove the Laurel to his own Hardy, Dove’s Mutt to others’ Jeff). Dove plays this one-man vaudeville stuff well, and his singing is solid, but it’s nothing you can ever settle comfortably into for very long, before he’s off another bit. This is fun if you like playing charades. Otherwise, it’s distracting. Three (and finally), tonight does nothing to shake the feeling that this whole “classic” business is essentially unimaginative. There is indeed a certain grim logic to the enthusiasm with which these classicists go about their work. But I have to wonder: Does the unsustainability of this project occur to them? Do they see the way they are desperately burning through the unrenewable resource of those aging fans (average age 66 tonight!) whose musical tastes were arrested in 1963 or thereabouts. You can call this classic if you’d like. Or tonight, you can call it “Quartet Heaven,” … as in “died and gone to,” I suppose. But for my part, I refer to hope this means the arrangers and songwriters and groups willing to perpetuate (rather than embalm) the music aren’t dead yet.

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