Da Greats

Ok. So thanks to one of my generous silent product-patrons, I recently came across a dvd of the “Remembering the Greats” recording from NQC 2004. Though I was at NQC last year, I did not attend the “Remembering the Greats” showcase for any number of reasons, some of which were confirmed by watching the video. At any rate, I’m struck by several things about the recording that I want to comment on.First the general stuff: the premises behind the event is laudable, even noble, certainly worth sticking with for a while. Get latter-day groups to (re)cover old tunes from “Da Greats,” a strategy that attempts to hook older listeners on younger generations of sg by sneaking in new(er) sounds of contemporary artists under cover of old standbys, like “Standing on the Solid Rock,” “My God is Real,” “The Lighthouse” and so on. Impatient with pandering to the ossified tastes of hidebound fans, I initially winced at this approach: quit trying to domesticate the originality of some of the best new talent (Mercy’s Mark, the Crabbs, L5, Mark Trammel Trio, LordSong) by creatively hogtying them into the constraints of decades-old material, I said to myself. But “Remembering the Greats” has a way of separating wheat and chaff that is particularly compelling: from all appearances, the artists themselves were mostly responsible for rearranging (or not) the old tunes that they were assigned. The effect of this model is that the talent separates out into self-defined categories ranging from mediocrity to magnificent. So let’s take a look.

Highlights:

  • Roger Bennett: It’s still a mystery to me why anyone would want to listen to Roger Bennett try to sing lead on all but the most autobiographical of material on studio projects, but his live performances are a thing of brilliance to watch (which isn’t exactly the same thing as listening to. Consider him on “I’ve Read the Back of the Book.” This is a persuasive example of how underwhelming vocals can be thoroughly trumped by pure stage presence. Bennett’s voice here is technically unremarkable: strained and uneven, by turns abrasive and insubstantial. But the absolute confidence he brings to the stage, his charismatic moxie, his self-effacing humor - which somehow manages to indemnify him from all the but the most egregious vocal infelicities - the point is, in sum Bennett’s showmanship works because he’s the rare breed of showmen who charms because he’s charming, not because he’s a good actor (though he’s that too). His appeal centrally relies on (maybe even requires) the vulnerability and shortcomings of his voice to make its overall effect, which is stunning, I must say. His comedic timing, his deadpan, his delivery, his body language: it’s just so perfectly calibrated, so easy and convincing. If Gerald Wolfe - the other emcee of the event - is all class and elegance, Bennett is pure charming self-effacement: his willingness, indeed his eagerness, to sing (not least of all given his precarious health) somehow manages to ennoble him. Of course Bennett knows he’ll never be a great vocalist. And yet he goes on, whenever he can. Sure his voice is unremarkable, but who cares. If he doesn’t seem to mind, why should I? At least that’s what I feel while watching him at work on this video.
  • Mercy’s Mark: I may have to walk back from this statement after watching the 2004 Crabbfest dvd, in which I have heard tell MM turns in a less-than-wonderful performance, but on “RTG” they are all grace and glory. “I’m Standing on the Solid Rock” is serviceable, but it’s on “Climbing Up the Mountain” where they really shine. Perhaps it’s because this song follows Triumphant’s “Terrible Time Down There” (more below), but there’s something about the simplicity of the arrangement: four guys, one of who plays and sings (nevermind playing better than he sings), and a hired gun bass player (a mortician in training no less) … it’s pretty powerful stuff, without histrionics or preposterous get-ups or what have you. Sign me up. Oh wait, … I already am.
  • Joyce Martin: Alright. You know when I’ve harped on “freshness,” belabored the point about the need for sg music that fuses the sense of the old with an invigorating vitality of newborn creativity? Well, Joyce Martin and Stan Whitmire’s arrangement of “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing For my Journey Now” is what I’m talking about. Entire clinics on arranging, accompaniment, and vocal coaching could be built around these handful of musical minutes. The crowd has no idea what is going on, but that only makes things all the more remarkable.
  • “God Walks the Dark Hills:” far away, THE emotional centerpiece of the recording. Mostly, this has to do with Libbi Stuffle, who completely takes charge of the stage, the song, the room, the entire dynamic of the program for the five minutes she’s up there. If you own this recording, go back and watch the reprise of the song, the a cappella passage at the end. If you don’t own it, get your hands on a copy just for this song, if nothing else. Watch the male vocalists, how they’re thoroughly beholden to Stuffle … she’s leading them nearly by the nose, through the pacing, the resolutions, the points of emphasis. Everything. What’s so magisterial about this is how powerfully unrehearsed much of it seems to be. How it testifies to the consummate professionalism of the folks involved - Gerald Wolfe, Mark Trammell, Stuffle, and Stuffle’s husband, Tracy. Look in their eyes during that ending: In the male vocalists, you’ll detect just a hint of uncertainty about what’s going to happen. In Libbi Stuffle’s it’s a kind of coaxing come-hitherness … follow me, boys … she says … I know where I’m going. Yet mingled with that uncertainty and beguilement is a far stronger excitement of the moment - they don’t all really know what’s ultimately happening next (even if Stuffle knows where she’s going, there’s no guarantee the boys will follow), but they know it’ll be fascinating, profound, exhilarating. And so it is.
  • My God is Real:” Yes, I confess. I have a secret affection for the Florida Boys in moments when they lock into the zone, as they do on “My God is Real.” I don’t so much care for the tenor but no matter. The foundation below him is so solid, so sure of itself and at home in the familiar terrain of a song like “My God.” I’ve written before about Gene MacDonald, thus no need to go on here about the same old affections. Instead, let me say how thoroughly I enjoyed Les Beasley’s plunkety spunk on the bass. When’s the last time you saw someone pull the strings way out like that and let them slap back into place? Yeah, me neither. And if he’s not having a good time back there all by himself, then the Oscar for best actor goes to him this year. Good stuff. If they can bring that enthusiastic ease to new material on their upcoming project, they’ll be a musical entity of some considerable force.

Lowlights

  • Stamps: My goodness. How embarrassing. Out of shape, vocally and physically. Weak and thin. A spectral remnant of their once great self. Ed Hill seems well-nigh vocally catatonic throughout the whole thing, and Ed Enoch’s carotid artery appeared about to explode long before he reached any notes worth straining for. Several years back, just after J.D. Sumner died and Enoch was carrying on with a version of the Stamps that was extant at Sumner’s death (singing as Golden Covenant before reacquiring the old Stamps name), Enoch literally walked the quartet off the NQC mainstage one evening a full five minutes before their set was up (the light was on yellow anyway), after a particularly horrendous showing that wasn’t going anywhere but down. By the look and sound of things on “RTG,” it’s tough going still.
  • Reba Rambo McGuire (Dottie’s Daughter): Appreciate as I do the nostalgic value of Reba Rambo McGuire’s appearance on the segment of the show devoted to remembering the Rambos, it fell totally flat to me. Perhaps this is because she has been all but MIA in sg for the last few decades (and the silly showiness of her and her daughter’s mucking up the Crabbs’ “I’ve Never Been This Homesick” felt opportunistic). Or maybe it’s that the rough-edged worldliness of McGuire’s on-stage demeanor that came off as unctuous and inauthentic in this setting. I’m not sure. But she took too many liberties with the audience (rambling on for what felt like a half hour) and then failed to redeem herself musically by choosing to sing a flash-in-the-pan duet with Karen Harding on the song “Because of Whose I Am.” If you’ve only got three songs to sing in remembrance of the great, spectacular, historically monumental Rambos, this song - written by Reba McGuire and Donny McGuire - is perhaps a good vehicle for self-promotion if you’re McGuire, but not the first, or the second, or the thirtieth or even the fiftieth choice if you really want to remember the classic Rambos, whose greatness was not earned by typically singing anything so disjointed as “Because of Whose I Am” (the somewhat unidiomatic “whose” ought to have been a tip off here that we’re not in real Dottie Rambo-land anymore, and let’s face it: unless you’ve got time to mount a full-scale retrospective of the Rambos through the generations, you really have to sing Dottie’s music at something like the “RTG’’s highlight-reel version of history … but even if that weren’t the case, “Because of Whose I Am” is just not terribly well written. I realize the song enjoyed some success for a spell in CCM, but then so did Dino).
  • Triumphity: Their sound is full and rich, but their act is far too theatrical. The preposterous get-ups (this is remembering the greats, not playing Dress Up Like the Greats), the cheesy doo-whopping and melodramatic choreography during “Terrible Time Down There” just seemed overmuch. Sell your sound, boys. Not your thespian aspirations. (Or as Roger Bennet put it, if you think you’re doing something new … the Statesmen already done it.)
  • Freemans: Their performance only compounds my confusion about their acclaim. It’s just a bizarre sound and look. Misty Freeman’s poppy-country sound, the Jerry Thompsony feel of the male parts, and the overextended quality of Chris Freeman’s voice … it’s just so … impossible to nail down. Or maybe it was just the venue. I’m not sure. I do know that the Jason Crabb-Mike Bowling-Chris Freeman rendition of “Lighthouse” ought to have been the showcase centerpiece but turned out to be the big letdown. The whole thing started off way too high for Bowling’s lead and wound up relying on Freeman’s nasally, sinewy intonation to carry things through to the end. It wasn’t a pretty sight or sound.

The most fascinating aspect of this stratification of performances is that it seems to have been thoroughly disconnected from the audience response. I mean, for most part the audience sits on its hand, perfunctorily nodding to the good and the bad in a kind of anemic indifference (in the audience’s defense I can say that noon-3, the usual timeframe for these showcases, is NQC nap time for me, so maybe everyone else felt that way too). At least this felt like what was going on beneath the healthy doses of clap-tracks that appear to have been inserted, especially at segment transitions, in the post-production overdub. Maybe it was the several moribund segments of Story Hour with Uncle Remus that created dead spots between the music - Ed Hill remembers the Statesmen, Gerald Crabb remembers the Hinsons (though his was perhaps the best, because briefest, remembrance), Gerald Wolfe remembers the Goodmans, Judy Nelon nervously remembers Vestal (”Get those cue cards higher, please”), Joyce Martin remembers Vestal, Reba Rambo remembers Vestal .. and remembers, and remembers, and remembers … - anyway, the crowd seemed uninvolved in most of the performances, musical and otherwise. “God Walks the Dark Hills” understandably got the most rousing response, and the crowd got to its feet a few other times, but mostly the audience looked and acted politely exhausted by the whole thing.

What to make of this? Well, I don’t know. What not to make of it is an indictment of the idea behind the showcase. Getting new and younger artists to reinvigorate old music is one prong of a multi-part strategy at the center of any effort to bridge the growing gap between hardline traditionalists and new musical progressives. So it wasn’t a blow-out success. So what. Try, try again. Just don’t forget to invite Joyce Martin, Stan Whitmire, Roger Bennett, Mercy’s Mark, and Libbi Stuffle and their kind.

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