Brian Free and Assurance: Live in NYC

My review of BF&A’s latest live project is up for your enjoyment, disdain or indifference.

Brian Free & Assurance
Live in New York City
Daywind, 2004
posted March 9, 2005 5:08 PM
By almost every mark of success used to measure southern gospel artists, a killer live project is usually among the top two or three things cited as a must-have. Aside from the Kingsmen, who built their legacy in the 70s and 80s on a slew of live albums that outdid anything they ever could produce in the studio, nearly all the Great Groups of sg have an album or two that stand out: Gold City’s Tenth Anniversary project; the Cats Live In Atlanta (and/or Travelin’ Live), the Goodmans Wanted Live (and/or Live in Huntsville), the Hoppers Live in Greenville, even to a lesser but still important extent, the Nelons A Promised Reunion (hat tip, TK). Understandably, in a genre of music built around the live performance to a degree unheard of in few other styles of popular American music, you might think sg live albums are pretty easy to pull off. But you’d be wrong. I offered that list just now not so much as an exhaustive or definitive one (there are other great live albums, of course, some of them probably from groups I’ve already named). Rather, my point was to suggest that despite the centrality of live performances in sg, coming up with solid, lasting live projects is a complicated business, one that the lucky and talented groups achieve, and the rest spend their entire careers trying to get right … and trying, and trying.

Which brings us to Brian Free & Assurance and their new live project. Here is a recording with all the right ingredients for success: a young exciting group, a marquee performer in Free, an exotic venue in the Christ Tabernacle Church of Brooklyn (exotic to the average sg fan anyway), a first-rate producer (Wayne Haun), and a choir - that favorite prop of the live project. In this case, though, the choir is not just enrobed window dressing. This is a first-rate outfit that produces listenable (and in at least on case, Dove-nominated) cds.

Put all this together and you’ve got BF&A: Live in New York City. The opening number is an acapella medley of hymns themed on the word “foundation” - an arrangement and rendition that is outstandingly sung and presages the carefully sculpted harmonics and impeccable delivery that run throughout the evening of music. “Why Not Make it Now” checks off the “(mostly) traditional sg music” box on the playbill (doing so enjoyably) and segues into “He’s All That.” Both songs clip along pleasantly and cleanly, diminished only slightly by their too-similar endings, both of which rely heavily on harmonic stacks built around what sounds to my untrained ear like ninths and sevenths or equally jazz-lite structures. “Goodness and Mercy” strikes a nice balance between country and pop, and just ever-so-slightly echoes the ballady feel that Gold City trademarked with Free in his time with that group. “Only By the Blood” and “We’ll Say Goodbye” come off without a hitch, neither doing anything particularly egregious or necessarily spectacular.

At least to me … the crowd, however, completely eats up “We’ll Say Goodbye,” mostly by dint of their obvious affection for Keith Plott. To be honest, this sort of confuses me. I mean, Plott does a good enough job on this recording, as he usually does with BF&A. But he is no powerhouse, nor is he particularly compelling as a soloist. Instead, he is a fine ensemble singer who holds his part down with aplomb but is hardly the guy you’d peg to create a cult-like response from an audience … but that’s just what happens here: the place lights up when Plott’s song is over, and later when Plott is introduced, the audience lets out Beatles-like screams and starts chanting his name “Keith! Keith! Keith!” in the way that sports fans might do when a favorite NBA center takes the court.

Similarly, my reaction to Plott - admirably serviceable but left my head intact at the end of it all - is a lot like my reaction to the project as a whole: impressed but not blown away. And I confess I really wanted to be knocked outta my seat by this project. But I wasn’t. Maybe it was overhyped (”a career-making project” or something to that effect, I seem to recall having read somewhere recently) or maybe it was just my nostalgia for live projects from the days of yore (think “Here I Am” from the Hoppers Live in Greenville, for instance). But the wildly enthusiastic response from the audience throughout the recording seems out of all proportion to the music itself, which hums along with fairly even-keeled efficiency, but like a healthy heartbeat never strays too far above or below the baseline. Even allowing for the possibility of overdubbed applause-tracks, this audience really took to BF&A. In part, I think this can be chalked up to the strangely powerful connection guest artists and personalities can make with host congregations in situations like this one. After all, if New Yark Sitty is exotic to the average sg fan, sg is probably no less exotic and quaintly charming to the average Brooklyn evangelical. So, in some sense the love-fest of the Christian melting pot that night (southern hicks - an image BF plays up repeatedly - careen into town in their bus to meet worldly Brooklynites for evening of praise and worship) probably accounts for some of the odd disconnect between the crowd’s response to the live concert and mine while listening to the recording.

But still, that said: here I am, not a little bored with the whole thing. Sure there are moments. “For God So Loved” is the emotional core of the recording, a really fine song sung very well in this instance - the kinda thing you can play over again and again and enjoy anew each time. Likewise, “Long as I got King Jesus” is a smart choice to create some cultural variety in a project pegged in large part to its urban(e) location. But there’s a certain absence of spontaneity to the recording in aggregate that manages to dull even the sharp edges of BF&A’s uber-crisp delivery and moments of real oomph. The audience loves the event, and that’s great. But the intense bonding between BF&A and Christ Tabernacle congregation seems so tight that none of the energy in the room escapes to the rest of us.

Consider, for a moment, the contrast between Live in NYC and, say, the Greenes Tenth Anniversary Live project. Recorded back in 1989, just after the then-21-year-old Kim Greene had added Hopper to her name and just before she left to sing with her husband’s family, this project couldn’t make BF&A in NYC seem more unlive. It’s not that the Greene’s project is perfect. In fact, that’s the point. It’s messy: the boys talk just entirely too much through the whole program, sometimes for nearly 10 minutes at a stretch in the middle of a song. It’s flawed: the kids all have breath-support issues - most obvious in “Sure Sounds Like Angels,” and they run too many high notes through their noses too abrasively … a family trait, I guess. And it’s unsophisticated: take the first line to “When I Knelt” - “sin is a captive.” Well no, sin is not a captive. It’s actually a captor: “it binds and it holds,” as the next line says. But then Tim Greene’s songs are often more emotionally real than they are well written. And yet, blemishes and all, Tenth Anniversary Live is one of the most glorious things on record in gospel music. “When I Knelt” and “More Precious Than Gold” are electrifying thunderstorms of force and beauty. On top of that, longwinded as they are, the Greene boys are thoroughly, infectiously moving testifiers. And by the time of the concluding reprise, “Miracle in Me,” the crowd absolutely comes unglued … some woman in the audience sounds like she’s seizing with pure revivalistic fervor off in the distance. During the tag, when the crowd sings along at first with and then without accompaniment, the recording exudes a levitating vitality that pulsates palpably even after all these years. It’s astounding that these three kids manage to create a high-point out of nothing more than a congregational all-sing … the gentle swell of hundreds of voices rising and falling along the melodic line accrues considerable majesty and a peaceful power, so that as the song fades out and the project concludes, it leaves a residue of greatness all over everything and everyone it touches. It’s as alive today as it was in 1989. This is the test and testament of a great live recording.

Live in NYC simply doesn’t meet or pass this test. There is, alas, an overabundant feel of the well-scripted drama to the recording. Between BF&A’s pristinely honed vocal precision and the miracle of studio overdubbing, the project is squeaky clean. Perhaps too much so - the group’s style and the project’s production scrub not only any trace of imperfection from the cd, but also any hint of unplanned exuberance: everyone claps and hollers on cue and shuts up promptly when it’s time to lay down the vocals. Gone is every last spot of time that might break free from its externals and take on a life of its own distinct from the fixed context of the project’s specific time and place - nobody having a one-woman revival, no sweet divine lines like Kim’s rendering of “sin is a captive” - even if the words aren’t quite right, they are delivered so sweetly and interpreted so expertly that their meaning is deeply, instinctively felt. It’s the kind of line that comes out of nowhere and generates some of the purist, most pervasive experiences of clarifying beauty that God’s children can know. All this is gone missing from Live in NYC, or maybe never was there to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that BF&A are inauthentic. The unmistakable excitement and authority that BF&A brought to the concert is clear from this recording (a friend wrote to say the dvd captures this especially well with visuals), and I have no doubt that Brian Free means every word of it when he asks rhetorically, “Are we havin’ church here tonight or what?” What I mean to say is that Live in NYC suggests the live project in sg may be entering a new, hyper-atrophied era, in which technical excellence neutralizes the felt pressure of a live musical moment unfurling in all its unpredictability while the tape rolls - for better and worse. Recall that BF&A are a product of the digital-audio-track age of stage performance. While they travel with live musicians, their sound and stage style could easily be a textbook example of unswerving discipline in the execution of their tunes - the vocal equivalent of studio musicians. With them, you get careful, complex, and consistently delivered songs that stay enviably on target, but also rarely deviate from the fairly circumscribed range of possibilities available to a group relying as heavily on digital accompaniment as BF&A does on the Live project. As Live in NYC makes clear, heavily digitized performances mean your options for spontaneity on stage are pretty limited: sing the last parts of that song again and really belt it out this time, or do something acapella. This formula does not make for moments that “are more precious than gold.”

BF&A are technical masters of their craft, a mastery too few artists in sg value highly enough. The group’s focus allows them to carefully bear down on a sound that holds up to the severest music-theory criticism. They make fine music. But great live albums - in sg as in all music - are not made. They must happen.

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