NQC 06: Friday night
[Note: Here is a roster of all the artists on the mainstage]
The big stuff
- The Crabbs: The CF took the stage a little past midnight to a room approaching vacancy, which only added to the sense of sadness settling over them in this their penultimate NQC performance. They opened with “Friend of God,” a full-on line-blurring CCM arrangement with crashing cymbals and hard, beefy lead guitar lines played against wide-open vocals. There’s a centrifugal pull to the Crabbs’ music in these latter days, an outwardly propulsive force that strains the extreme limits of their orbit, the center barely holding together a set of interlocking talents so familiar with each other and so self-possessed – individually and collectively – as to heighten the perverse paradox of the CF calling it quits just when the group achieves the height of its powers and talent. The set is centered on an acoustic rendition of “Please Come Down,” and the second Great Exodus from Freedom Hall that started before the Crabbs took the stage is halted, the hall stilled by Jason Crabb’s solitary voice and some magnificently well-placed lines from uber-keyboardist Justin Ellis. Crabb is a massively talented man who must, I imagine, get easily bored with the merely human work of staging a competent set – and so we get these little moments of perfectly improvised acoustical reflections of standard Crabb tunes as Crabb probes the outermost boundaries of his own and his family’s creativity. Remember this, dear reader, for doubtless we have taken it for granted. The Crabbs go on like this for 15 minutes or so, a six and seven-piece band staffed by flawless musicians, five voices shifting and realigning constantly in series after series of combination and recombination, a natural fluidity and complementarity that is fascinating to watch and listen to. After a while, not very long really, one begins to realize that this scene – wherein perhaps the most natively talented and spontaneously innovative act in Christian entertainment toils away in bar after bar of straightahead, furiously unfiltered beauty at 1230 on a Friday night/Saturday morning in a decrepit university arena rapidly emptying of mostly half-comprehending souls – this scene contains a germ of explanation for the Crabbs’ dissolution. Possessed of an ability to effortlessly move in and out of and beyond any number of adjacent musical styles (to belong at and yet thoroughly exceed all preexisting categories contained in NQC), the Crabbs have innovated and line-blurred themselves right out of an audience, who – sadly – won’t really know what we’ll be missing until it’s gone.
- The Lesters: it was just a few bars, but the Lester’s staged an arrangement of “I’d Rather Have Jesus” tonight that contained some of the finest sounding music theory to come from the NQC stage since the Martin’s unleashed upon us their eye-popping modulations and vocal inversions (I suspect the arranging eye and ear of Brian Lester’s famously talented sister, Ginger, was at work in the Lesters’ set tonight). Plus, Liz McMillan, the Lester’s alto, is really quite good – nice low tones in the tradition of Kim Ruppe Lord. Sadly, none of this grace and elegance and good music made its way to the Lesters latest project, which just stinks, I hate to say.
- Was Roger Fortner’s little boy really playing all those gorgeously flawless fills during the McKamey’s set on a guitar that was nearly as big as he? Or was that the track (I couldn’t see from my angle)? I really hope it was the kid (I caught a few shots from the camera that made me think maybe it was). Anybody know?
- Material and tunage issues: A)A lot of groups are staging a lot of mediocre-to-crappy material. The Kingdom Heirs, Palmetto State, the Doves, and, worst of all, Mark Trammel Trio, which at times seemed to be stalling to run the clock out. The MTT set was full of thumbsucker tunes and old tymie sing alongs. Honestly. B)And then there were so many groups with persistent pitch problems, especially the basses.
Bonus Standouts and/or Other Worth Mentionings
- Video-idiocy (in two parts): Part I: Mike Speck and his offkey trio staged their set with a choir, naturally (since Speck is gospel music’s self-appointed choirmaster), which is fine. People like it and choral music is a big part of the adjacent church tradition that sg fans belong to. But what is not fine is having the choir stand there while a video-audio track of a choir (and if I understood Speck correctly, THE VERY CHOIR ON STAGE) plays behind and above the trio. Tacky, tacky and a bit gauche, frankly, to march a fifty-person choir on stage and then ask them to take it about the head and ears while you use a video choir track to back yourself up. Part II: The Hoppers, trotting out “Shoutin Time,” once again simulcast a video of themselves singing this threadbare classic in various concerts (mostly Gaither ordeals) in the past decade. We get it. It’s Shoutin Time. Complete with the by-now trademarked Shoutin Time Promenade. Perhaps from now on we can just play a compressed clip of this video montage between real sets and fulfill our obligation to the song that way?
- My NQC Pal (MNP hereafter) rode on the plane down here with Mohammed Ali. How cool is that? She says he’s an e-frikkin-normous (my word, not hers) man. He musta been a boxer or something.
- Hoppers on the Clock: 9:01: The Hoppers have hired a choreographer and theatrical producer, it seems, to help them stage this perpetual legacy tour they’re on. Tonight opens with a dramatic, well-lit and voiced-over version of “That’s Him,” a crowd favorite. 9:04: Yup, it’s a fact: The Hoppers have enthusiastically decided to make their last decade a neverending Greatest Hits (read “heritage”) tour, which – even if it doesn’t manage to recapture the gleaming magnificence of their music in the mid- to late-90s – it does at any rate give us a chance to recall this memory and smile and be grateful we were there then. 9:11: Regretting gratitude of a few minutes ago because, alas, it is now Shoutin’ Time. 9:17: Still shoutin, though there seems to be conspicuous Shoutin’ Fatigue in Freedom Hall. Claude Hopper has to turn the tune around several agonizing times before he gets more than a tepidly underwhelmed response from the crowd. 9:19: Crowd begins clamoring to its feet, but people on the Shoutin Time Simulcast (STS) are having a much better time than we are. 9:21: Finally a quorum begins to get on its feet, perhaps in hopes that this is the key to ending the ordeal before anyone else gets hurt. 9:23: No such luck. More shoutin’, thank you very much. 9:25: On the bright side, Sue Dodge is only seen – on the STS – and not to be heard from. 9:28: Either I blacked out or the song stopped. Perrys beware: this is what becoming America’s First Family of Gospel Music hath wrought. Speaking of the P’s, is it true Tracy Stuffle gave their favorite mixed group award to the Crabbs? [Answer: evidently, yes. See above]
- Stan Whitmire: almost made Speck Trio worth it. MNP jotted in my margin that “too bad S Whitmire isn’t giving piano lessons – Ishee could use a few.” Indeed, S Whitmire could do quite a bidness giving piano lessons here tonight.
- Dixie Echoes and Florida Boys: these weren’t the cleanest or most technically expert sets, but they were more or less well-paced and both groups delivered a comfortable twenty minutes that were fun, funny, and full of music – with no obtrusive pretensions about “ministry.” Thank you.
- Speaking of the Echoes, though: Noble as it is to want to brand themselves as the “two-mike old-style” group, it’s just a bad idea. Seriously, the music, the suits, the song selection, the humor and stylistic choices – they all speak for themselves. And you really don’t want to be the guys who choose to have a crappy, muffled, uneven sound run through two mikes in a technologically sophisticated age in which audiences are accustomed to … you know, decent sound. And/but their tenor sounded really solid tonight.
- Kingdom Heirs: The group seems to be regressing to the worst kind of harshness of the same vareity the Kingsmen yelped and howled themselves into during the 80s. Tonight the KH abrasively clamped down on the front end of so many notes as to create a lyrical mash of wah-wahs and blah-blahs (imagine a quartet of Charlie Brown teachers). Which is a shame. They are an exciting group of performers, likeable, easy on the stage, and well-paced (as well they should be, given all the shows they do at Dollywood). Arthur Rice is still the group’s showman, vocally and nonverbally, and he ought to command every performance, harness the crowd’s attention and close the deal for the group, but there is so much nasally squawking coming from tenor Billy Hodges on his right and so much unnpleasant honking and belching coming from the bass on his left that the group’s sound has the consistency of chunky dishwater. And Rice himself too often abandons his considerable gift for subtle interpretation of lyrics and falls prey to the oversinging, vocal gymnastics, and general IAGing that typifies the group’s work toward the end of their sets – in short, Dollywooding. The group still gets the crowd on its feet, but in a much less efficient and far less elegant way than one imagines they ought to be able to.
- DBQ on the clock: 10:12: McCray Dove: “I know this is different than you’ve ever seen the Dove Brothers before.” 10:21: Begin “Didn’t it Rain.” 10:21:06: MNP to me: “Different, huh?” 10:25: Enter Ben Speer. 10:25:08: Me to MNP: Why is he lending his prestige to what he himself has called in years past “a circus”? 10:25:12: [Silent glare from MNP] 10:25:20: No seriously, can someone please explain to me the connection between the Doves and Speer? I’m curious. And as for the circus, nobody likes it but the people.
- Unexpected Delight of the evening: Laughing giddily when Peg McKamey started warbling those first famous lines, “Life is easy, when you’re upon the mountain.” Granted, the Inspirations had gone on before the McKameys, and a friend of mine couldn’t hack staying out past his bedtime so I had no excuse to trudge over to the South Wing just to kill the 20 minutes the I’s were on, and then what with the Inspirations becoming more … well, “Inspirational” and me becoming less so, it was a tough 20 minutes that made the McKamey’s positively tuneful.
- Gold City: Their tracks sounded like they were being spooled off a cassette tape, and the lows seemed to consist mostly of an overbearing kick drum (and ftr, the track mix was bad all night; the Hoppers’ bass guitar track sounded like it was being amplified in a deep fat fryer), but the group looks wonderful on stage these days: youthful and balanced and pleasant. Aaron McCune acquitted himself ably with a delightfully understated arrangement of “Teach Me Lord” and the stand out of the night was Steve Ladd, who grew a goatee and learned to find his pitches fairly consistently and place his tones much more solidly. The set never completely crystallized or gelled for me, but it was great to see the group find its sea legs after a rough year in so many ways.
- Finally, the Dixie Melody Boys have a fine, fine lead singer. Who is he?
The Grab Bag
- On the record: 1)Andrew Ishee, to audience: “I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk a little about myself.” This is not, as it turns out, a joke, or if it is, no one laughs. 2)Dean Hopper to Ronnie Hinson, after the Hoppers were beginning to sing one of Hinson’s songs: “You gonna come up and sing with us?” Hinson: [Gets up to come sing with them]. DH: “No, not yet.” Ouch.
- NQC housekeeping: 1)the stage this year is updated a bit, the plastic ferns are gone, and a colorful and sort of tasteful NQC logo covers the performer’s area, which is lined with small foot lights. There are also flat panel monitors at each corner of the stage, which is a nice addition not just for VIPs sitting around the base of the stage but for people in the seats. Such high-resolution screens are sorely needed in the food court, where the old projection screens displaying the mainstage events are barely visible in the bright fluorescence of the Exhibit Hall. 2)Though thanks to a massive renovation project, you have to walk through what feels like a mine shaft to get to the exhibit hall, I prefer the South Wing to the old West Wing space. That said, this year it hit both MNP and me that NQC would do well to add just a small Starbucks stand and maybe a Subway vendor to augment the arterial-sclerotic fare at Pork Heaven and Fried Island and Funnel Cake Cardiac.
- All dolled up: I don’t want to walk into the Dottie-Rambo fan club propeller again, but really, the Dottie Doll is a strange and mildly unsettled figurine that looks nothing at all like its namesake.
- Fashion update: Kim Hopper sports what can only be called (by MNP, I might add) “bad boho.” Somehow, oddly, it worked, though, in a strange echo of Joseph-and-the-Technicolor-Dreamcoat-meets-peasantware kinda way.
- Speaking of Kim Hopper: she officially wins the Most Backphrased Line in a Single Verse Award for her work on “That’s Him.” It’s amazing to hear her catch up so effortlessly with her own staged deferrals.
- Washable: You know those annoying public-restroom faucets on springs that require you to turn the knob with one hand to rinse the other? Well, these things Have. To Go. Really, the are so difficult and exasperating to use, they are just encouraging people not to wash. Ick.
- Lookalikes: The Florida Boys lead singer looks like Jon Lovett.
- Heavy lifting: Seriously, Brian Lester had to ask, from the stage, for 25 able-bodied men to help move five grand pianos for tomorrow’s Pianorama. No, honestly.
- Band together: I think the 182 of us who stayed to hear the Crabbs can confidently say that the Kingdom Heirs band – yet again the fan favorite band this year – really needs to just give their award to the Crabb Family, or else the SN needs to rename the award the Crabb Family Kickass Band Award. Or maybe not. First there’s the issue of profanity in the title and then there’s problem that once the CF band is gone, there won’t be any band in sg that could approach them.