Averyline on the Frontlines: Talleys, Anthony Burger, The Booth Brothers

Location: Dix, Ill. I grew up the middle of the nowhere and this place, trust me, is in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
Setting: Boyd Christian Church gymnasium
Occasion: A Reunion of Homecoming Friends II, it says on my ticket. It’s not clear to me if this is an allusion to Bill Gaither or not, but I assume it was. At any rate, Bill Gaither is the honorary fourth act: he’s mentioned frequently throughout the evening; artists use him as a rhetorical prop for all kinds of jokes about money (Gaither’s legendary cheapness and wealth), his age, and senility. And the crowd loves it … it’s like they’ve got their own little Homecoming Friends deputation sent out here to southern Illinois farm country.
Average age guesstimate: 57
Opening act: None, thankfully. The thing started at 7 and ran straight through without a break for more than three hours. These folks didn’t flinch, whereas I, on the other hand, left at 10:15 when Debra Talley had just put the audience in go-home mode by having them sing “Jesus Loves Me.”
Attendance: ca 650 (Have I mentioned I’m really bad at this? The place was wall-to-wall people but the space was configured oddly and it was hard to get a handle on the head count, so who knows)
Cost: $12 (thanks, mystery friend)Perhaps the first thing to say is that every sg artist hopes for a crowd like this. Attentive, exuberant, can keep time, can sing (seriously, for the first time in I can’t remember when, I enjoyed the moments when the audience was invited to sing along), and sat through three hours of nonstop music without so much as a mumble. Their response to each of the three acts was nothing short of explosive. And it made for a much more enjoyable night … that kind of energy is contagious and sustaining. It’s much easier to dislike something knowing that, judging by the reaction around you, you’re probably one of the only people in the room who thinks so.

First up, Talley Trio
The first hour of the concert could have been renamed The Lauren Talley show, just as the Talley Trio could more aptly be named Lauren Talley & Parents. Which is to say, Lauren Talley was the Diva of Dix. With her presence and voice, her class and good looks, but most of all her poise as an artist, the young Talley would probably stun most audiences into a kind of Awe and Reverence if she wasn’t so capable of taking people through a range of emotional and spiritual responses to the music she performs. “I’m Happy with You Lord” gave way to “Searching,” which would have felt a little tired, I suspect, in your average venue, but this audience ate it up and loved every moment of Lauren Talley’s virtuoso command of the little stage. An a cappella number got the crowd on its feet and led onto “Shout to the Lord,” and though I haven’t seen LordSong perform this song from their latest project, The Talleys may very well have out-Lorded Lordsong. Listening to Lauren Talley’s verses here, I was reminded of Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston (the early, pre-meltdown years) and, most of all, the echoes of CeCe Winans in Talley’s voice. I’d be shocked if Winans’s example wasn’t somewhere in Talley’s formal or informal training. Like Winans, Talley has a way of settling down on notes from a step or so above and staying a half beat or so behind the time (though Billie Holiday was really one of the first mainstream vocalists to popularize this latter technique), as a way of giving lines texture and emphasis without straying from the melody.

Yet none of this really seemed to matter when she sang a song from her latest project, “That Name,” a lyrically and melodically beautiful vehicle that made my drive to the boonies worth it and then some. Though I nearly came unglued during the song, the audience seemed for the first and only time, mildly baffled by it, politely clapping at the end until one perceptive and brave woman in the front stood up, at which point the rest of the room caught on and began to realize what they had just heard. Part of the pleasure here is Talley’s way with a lyric, her developed interpretative sensibility, the way she makes a song feel and not just sound. It’s an ineffable thing to experience, elusive of description but unmistakable. And, too, Talley has grown beyond much of the IAG silliness that not too long ago was so central to her stage presence. As her voice has matured and her mind has begun to catch up to her vocal ability, her confidence has deepened. Consequently, there is much less need these days for her to launch off on one of those IAG arabesques, chasing some rabbit around the melody until everyone is dizzy and exhausted and asking “what song is this again?” Talley still struggles in lower registers, as she did last night with the verses of “His Life for Mine” - too many notes are undefined and pitchy, and not well enough supported to allow her to push them to the back of her throat (a la Winans, again) as a way of covering and softening them, building contours and arcs into phrases and tone. But during songs like “That Name” and “The Healer,” Talley anchors her voice around big, broad, expansive whole notes - a full-on approach to solo work that is as impressive as it is rare (and rare because so difficult … artless displays of raw vocal power wouldn’t be so popular if technique and discipline were as easy to come by as IAG theatrics). Ending an hour-long set with an uncovered straight tone for four or six measures, as Talley did, is the closest singers can come to doing battle with their bare hands, relying on nothing more or less than their intuition and native sense of artistic self-possession.

Oh yeah, Roger and Debbie Talley were there, too. Seriously, I’m not intentionally short shrifting them. It’s just that it’s difficult for anyone on stage alongside Lauren Talley to make the kind of lasting impression she does and did. Debra Talley talked entirely too much, both during the Talleys’ set and at the end, when all three acts joined one another on stage, and she went flat against her track and the ensemble several times. But during moments when it was her job to carry the show, as during “No One Ever Cared for Me,” Talley reminded us of her early days as a gospel ingenue, with the velveteen magic in her slightly sultry voice that has endeared her to gospel music ever since she and Roger and Kirk first started singing together. And Roger, well … he is the Bill Gaither of tenor singers, I think. His voice is forgettable, a kind of placeholder, but that hardly matters, considering the acuity of his mind as an arranger and a choreographer. Case in point: It’s just a little thing, but it’s such a pleasure to listen to the piano lines that Roger played during Debbie’s “testimonies” (yes, there was more than one, alas …. And I “quote” them because when done right they don’t feel like “testimonies,” but while these were sincere, they still felt canned and padded). He threaded a quiet soundtrack behind her words that emotionally colored and emphasized her story at exactly the right spots (a minor chord here, a suspension there). In these moments, when Lauren is off to one side of the stage, while her parents close the deal, round out the package, it’s possible to see what the genetic code of greatness looks like.

Next up, Anthony Burger
Even though I had never seen AB in concert before, it’s not true to say I didn’t know a little of what to expect. Still, I was unprepared for this. Really. Burger took the stage just about 9 p.m. and played virtually nonstop for almost a full hour: it was like the place was hopped up on speed every second of the way. There was shouting, and hollering, and hand waving and yelling and clapping … and not just clapping, but that big, wide, open-armed smacking-together of the hands that people do when they are just so overwhelmed they can only express their feelings by hitting themselves in this primordial expression of enthusiasm. You think I’m being over the top. You weren’t there. But I’m ahead of myself. If you’re familiar with Liberace or Dino, then you’re familiar with the basic template Burger uses: in this case, familiar tunes (”Rhapsody in Blue” or “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”) interleaved with old gospel favorites (”I’m Winging My Way,” “I’m Getting Ready,” “Great is They Faithfulness” and so on). It’s up to each pianist to take ownership of the template. Burger’s approach is a kind of open-throttle, hard-driving intensity, pretty clearly steeped in the Jim Hammel School of Gospel Performance and the Rode-Hard-and-Put-Away-Wet style that the Kingsmen made famous while Burger was playing for them way back when. Thus, Burger does a lot of hopping up and down, rocking forward on the piano bench, blur-fast karate chopping of the keys and pretty much whatever else he can think of to accentuate whatever he’s playing (this is, I think, Andrew Ishee’s true calling). He also sweats. A lot.

There is a great deal of wisdom in this strategy: for starters, it let’s people identify with Burger as that boy Hammel plucked from obscurity and worked like a dog until he was famous. That’s our Anthony, still working just as hard as Hammel forced him too, etc. Or something like that. And too, the interpretive dance that accompanies the music gives audiences cues about when and where to respond, though this audience hardly needed any cueing up. Before the first number (”Gershwin meets “Shout To the Lord,” which is beginning to be, I think, the new “He Touched Me”), people were on their feet, either in order to get more clearance for their open-armed smack-clapping or in order to get their footing for the big finale of each song, at which point the place exploded. Some people, like the three women in front of me, stood up the entire hour. They were dying to be able to see the keyboard, which we couldn’t from our vantage point (I think Burger could easily charge more for seats with a view of his hands … seriously). And they just couldn’t go over - “can you, Sandy?” - how he does it … at times their fascination was so irrepressible they started turning to perfect strangers near them, poking them in the arm and saying things like “hahahaha he can play just a little, can’t he?” and “they’re gonna hafta get a new piano after tonight” and “I think with a few lessons he might do ok.”

At first, this all rather baffled me. These people were almost all intimately familiar with Gaither and his videos, surely had seen Burger there, and even if they hadn’t, knew him from his Kingsmen days when his prodigious talent was regularly on display. So what is it about all this in particular that is so huge? First off, he doesn’t act or play like this on the Gaither videos, but I don’t think that’s the biggest reason. Broken down to its component parts, I think it’s something like: novel yet familiar, exciting yet predictable (the old hymn will always circle back around in each medley; the minor always gives way to a major); rowdy but safe. Burger’s set can be moving, and they’re emotionally dynamic, but his is not an overtly spiritual or religious act. It’s entertaining, unabashedly so, without reservation or apology. And I am grateful for that. There’s no testifying (people didn’t come to hear that from him … and besides, Debbie Talley testified enough for everyone last night). No attempts to justify how much he throws himself into the show. He just does it; the audiences loves it. And there you go.

Burger of course recognizes this, and he also knows that his audiences enjoy feeling like they’re on the inside track to the best kept nonsecret in Christian entertainment: that old hymns and convention songs can exist alongside Tommy Dorsey, melding into a kind of a smooth jazz sg. “I enjoy,” Burger slyly tells the crowd, “rearranging old hymns so that nobody can recognize them.” Which of course is patently false. The songs are entirely recognizable - if they weren’t, nobody would bother listening. But it’s a wonderful game he plays with audiences (”see if you recognize any of these old tunes,” and as soon as they recognize the tune, the room bursts into vigorous applause). With Burger’s help, these audiences are able to reimagine their favorite gospel music as being just as good as their favorite “secular” songs … plus, (added bonus!) it’s ok to listen to Glen Miller in church! In this regard, Burger is a one-man gospel Lawrence Welk show, merging middle-brow smooth jazz with low-brow pyrotechnics (people love the smoke machine Burger uses at various point throughout the show) - all set to the tune of the shape-note songbook.

Finally, the Booth Brothers
Here’s a challenge for you: close a three-act evening two hours into the night. Ladies and Gentlemen, The BOOTH BROTHERS! Tielessly hip, the BBs take the stage to … nothing. Technical issues. The first of the obvious sound trouble of the night, mind you, but given the hour, the fact that Burger has just exhausted everyone (himself included, I imagine), the absence of any intermission, and - most of all - Michael Booth’s humor, this particular break in things was welcome. Michael Booth looks around in faux confusion whilst sound guys scurry about diagnosing the problem: “Anthony Burger broke everything up here.” Big laughs. It’s funny. And Booth is a very quick-witted, fast-on-his-feet funny kinda guy. Michael Booth introduces the group, then turns to the device from which they play their band tracks: “And this is our band leader, Sony Mitchimishi.” This is very funny. And it’s the kind of humor that is a big part of the BBs appeal. The other part is their sound, which is built around Ronnie Booth’s trademarkably distinct voice, a sorta countrified baritone but not just or only that. Things kick off, once the sound problems are fixed, with “Thank Him for the Miracle,” “Feeling Mighty Fine” and “His Grace is Sufficient.” It’s a nice triptych that showcases the Booths’ lilting, sweet, charming ensemble, not to mention their stylistic range.

The group so clearly enjoys the intricacies and the risk-taking involved in complex harmonics, and they’ve got an impressive grasp of when it’s working and not. Jim Brady turned in an uninspiring second verse to “His Grace,” so Michael Booth pulled it out by calling an a cappella reprise of the chorus. The place sorta shrugged when it ended the first time, but after the turnaround, they were on their feet. There’s also a dexterity and range to the Booths’ stylistic interests that let them take advantage of moments other groups would have to pass up or approach tentatively. Thus the Booths invited Burger on stage to accompany them on “Look For Me,” Michael Booth’s first vehicle of the night. While his voice can be a touch thin and tinsely when he gets excited (which happens easily and often), Booth’s tones as exemplified by the early parts of these verses are gorgeous and evocative - a high, clear voice, full at once of both vulnerability and great restrained force. After “I’ve Been Changed,” we got the Booth Brothers Chuckle Hut routine that stretched on for a while between several songs, culminating after a few songs in an unfortunate towel-head joke that the Brothers should have left in Israel when they were over there for Bill Gaither’s Jerusalem project (just because people laugh doesn’t mean it’s funny). There’s more talking in the set than seemed necessary - it felt at times as if in trying to follow the moment where it took them, the Brothers often let the reins go too slack. But the set closed with “He Saw it All,” the first cut from their new project; “The Night Before Easter;” and “Still Feeling Fine.” A nice mix, even if Michael Booth’s voice lost much of its restraint (and so, for me, appeal) as things careened toward some of the shout-off moments when the Talleys and Burger joined the BBs on stage to close the night. Still, the Booths bring the kind of intensity to their sets, and along with it enough moments of genuinely good music, that it puts a person like me in a forgiving mood. I can’t recall the last time I heard a trio, of which there seem to be more these days than quartets, that had such a clear and sophisticated sense of what they wanted to sound like and where they wanted to go.

Even though I would have preferred they hadn’t strayed quite so far into the Garry-Shepard territory of red-faced shrill notes and improvised vocal stunts, it’s probably not fair to lay this entirely at the Booths’ feet. After all, these are three artists shaped to varying degrees by the Homecoming phenomenon, just as this audience’s tastes and expectations have been trained by Gaither and Friends. So when the Talleys-Burger-Booths finale quickly became a pocket-sized Homecoming shows - old standards notable primarily for the various recombinations of the assembled groups (Burger, Booth, Booth; or Booth, Talley, Burger or whatever) rather than the music itself - the only surprise was that it didn’t happen sooner. The first all-sing tune was “I Feel Like Travelin’ Home,” and the Homecoming choir track they were using was so loud the live vocalists didn’t really need to sing at all. At least that’s what it sounded like. It makes perfect sense: Gaither creating a whole line of band/choir tracks from the Homecoming Friends shows that groups like the Talleys and Booths can take out to their individual concerts and use to keep the Homecoming fires burning brightly. This descent of a three-act evening into a Gaither mini-me is, I note with some self-satisfaction, Gaitherization at work. For my part, though, I think it’s worth remembering that each of these acts, and not least of the Booths, kept almost everyone’s attention (only a few people I saw got up and left early) for three long hours on hard metal chairs in a gym trimmed with fake ivy that kept falling down in little pieces at various loud points throughout the night … if you can pull that kinda feat off, then I guess you’ve probably earned your right to trade on your Gaither connections for a little while.

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