NQC 06: Saturday night
The big stuff
- The Booth Brothers: The group performed as if in and from another stratosphere than everyone else, save maybe the Crabbs. The set was perfectly paced and calibrated, pleasantly and originally funny in a way that appealed to more than the lowest common denominator fan (Michael Booth is a quickwitted and likeable showman with that uncanny ability to seem like he’s talking to only just a handful of people even in room of 15,000). Harkening back to the old Mills Brothers, the Booths did a “gather round the mike” rendition of “Without the Lord.” Not many groups can pull off this kind of exposed performance, but in the Booths case it actually foregrounded their key strengths which were lost in the more conventionally sung songs with tracks. Ronnie Booth has a delightful mellifluous voice that warms and enriches the ensemble work with deeply resonate tones and he does all this so easily and politely. My only complaint with the set was their opening number, a weak cover of the old Cathedrals tune, “Homeland.” But maybe I’m just wishing they had used that space for more of the Mills-Brothers acoustical work. The Booths in general work hard without overdoing it, which makes them one of the few acts in sg that demonstrably believes honest showmanship and good music are sufficient. Michael Booth began the set’s final song, “Look For Me at Jesus’ Feet,” seated next to the piano, which – given the moment he had created in the set up – cast a kind of spell on the room. His voice is (like Paid In Full’s tenor) one of the few higher male voices to have depth and color to it, which Booth draws out toward the end of his phrases. The effect is to build emotional intensity incrementally with each successive line of the lyrics, in turn daisy-chaining verses together into these cluster bombs of explosive feeling by the time the ensemble joins him for the chorus. It’s magnificent, really. And so refreshingly original and familiar all at once. More Booths, please.
- Mercy’s Mark: Chris West and Anthony Facello are gone and the group seems to have come unraveled at both ends. The new bass was consistently pitchy and the new tenor … well, I had to leave the room during a poorly chosen call from Garry Jones for the new tenor to sing “Somebody Touched Me.” The tenor typifies a problem that afflicts the entire group more or less: an excess of notes sung in staccato. I gather this is a symptom of pitch problems; certainly it’s better to get on and off a note as quickly as possible if it’s that note’s going to be off key. But in general, MM = a big disappointment.
- The Perrys: I was listening tonight primarily for the effect of baritone Joseph Habedank moving to the lead and Nick Trammel taking over the baritone. The risk of this move is that Habedank would or will compare unfavorably to Loren Harris, his predecessor. And Habedank did miss several opportunities tonight to really nail his lines with authority and gravitas in a way that would solidify his lead-singer bonafides. Instead, he seemed to be succumbing to the blandishments of his promotion and increased profile on stage and took to oversinging, excessively ornamenting, and generally IAGing about 90% of his lines. By the end of the set, there was nary a line of melody to be heard, such was Habedank’s self-indulgent style. Nick Trammel’s voices rings out with his father’s depth and vitality, but Little T struggled with placing his pitches tonight, though in fairness, Habedank’s vocal rabbit chasing may have made the problem seem more pronounced than it actually was (seriously, at times one could be forgiven for thinking Habedank was trying to sing everybody’s lines). But all this is really immaterial. The crowd seriously hearts the Perrys, from first to last and it’s a pleasure to watch them work, even in this slightly diminished period of transition from Loren Harris to What’s Next.
- It had to be 60 degrees up in the nosebleeds. Seriously. So. Frikkin. Cold.
- The Crabbs: Farewell to thee. It was an interesting set that went from “The Cross” to one of the most unconventional, uncategorizable Holy Ghost instrumental numbers from the band I’ve ever heard, to “Through the Fire” to the Crabbs finally walking off in silence, sort of. The set really began after the band solo (which was much better received than I thought it would have been … at times it sounded like something from a Dead concert crossed with Charlie Daniels band and a dash of the McGruders). Anyway, Jason Crabb and the drummer segued from the band piece to a simple duet (give or take some augmentation from the keyboard) that came roundaboutly to serve as an introduction to “Through the Fire.” This was a perfect example of what I was trying to explain last night about how the Crabbs seem almost to completely reconceive themselves and their material every night. In this case, that guitar intro was a meditative reimagining of a song that remains vibrant and effective solely on the Crabb Family’s (and mostly Jason Crabb’s) ability to bend the material to serve immediate needs and demands and feelings. Here, the plaintive guitar lines – contemplative but also urgently full of … something … be it grief or loss or sadness or the indescribable complex of feeling that must surround this kind of farewell – was just right for this final NQC appearance for the Crabbs in this form. In the end, though, the Crabbs just stopped singing. Instead, Jason Crabb had the audience singing the family’s own farewell as the Crabbs walked off the stage quietly, somberly, in dimness and uncertainty.
- And finally, a few words on the genius of Justin Ellis, the Crabb’s keyboard player. No one in gospel music (no one, perhaps, in Christian entertainment right now) comes close to his intuition and brilliant touch. If Stan Whitmire’s genius is to export the bloodless perfection of studio playing to the live stage in such a way that the accompaniment is infused with human feeling and perspective, Ellis responds reflexively to each successive musical moment on its own terms and demands. He reminds me of Thelonious Monk – hands hovering over the keyboard as if waiting for the muse to move, and then fingers finding keys in a chords and fills that are marvelous, unexpected, and exactly right.
Bonus Standouts and Other Things Worth Mentioning
- The Martins are back: what a pleasure to hear the Martins again at NQC, especially their acapella work. The Martins can, as MNP noted, sing a unison note in flawless form, no single voice detectable. This is no small pleasure, especially after hearing the Inspirations encore “I have not Forgotten” for 10 minutes.
- Unofficial numbers that I was able to overhear suggest that NQC attendance was down only 1.4% this year. Emphasis on the “only,” since in recent years attendance has declined by wider margins, I gather.
- Honestly, how far will Bill Gaither go, literally, to not so subtly snub the NQC? This year he upped his own ante and not only scheduled a Homecoming concert during NQC weekend but did so IN AFRICA. What’s next? Antarctica Homecoming? Homecoming on the Moon? I’m just glad the Booth Brothers decided to stay here.
- Gold City put together a solid set again. Steve Ladd has definitely improved, dropping hardly a note and placing his tones much more confidently and fully. Good for him. Poor Aaron McCune doesn’t appear to have yet figured out how to take Jonathan Wilburn on stage. During Wilburn’s folksy, oh-so-country-clever introduction of McCune, the guy just stood there with a tight-lipped grimace on his face. When Wilburn finally finished, McCune looked as grateful that is was all over as he did for the applause. The set generally was well paced and smartly balanced, including a “gather round the piano” version of “Praise God I’m Free” and Daniel Riley turning in a strong lead on the most popular song at the convention (see below): “Truth is Marching On.”
- Talley Trio: things started out gorgeously with an extended piano intro from Roger Talley, which gave way to “I Love the Lord.” The Talleys, though, use arrangements that often act as self-sabotage. This happens generally whenever Debra or Lauren Talley have to sing a long, straight note for a big finish. It’s courageous to put yourself on the line like that, but few artists can get out in front of a notes that big and long and uncovered without going flat against the track or the ensemble, which happened tonight, repeatedly. Plus, Debra Talley sang a long, loungy cover of “I Can Feel His Hand In Mine” that would only have worked with a cigarette and a cocktail, of which we had neither in our upper deck meat freezer.
- Ehrlers Ice Cream, you know those people with the waffle cones and the sinfully good ice cream, … well, they need to get a few more vending stands and stock up more robustly. Lines stretched on for 75 feet or more all night and things nearly came to fisticuffs in the line I was in when the station ran out of butter pecan around 8:45. Oh my.
- In the alternate universe where the most deserving and talented, not the most popular or anointed, artist receives the fan award, Gene McDonald is the reigning Bass Singer of the Year, year after year.
- L5: I hate to report this, because I always look forward to their sets, but this was a pretty flatfooted set. Weak song selection, including a drowsy ballad about grace smack in the center of things, and not enough crowd interaction (one of L5’s big strengths) really muted L5’s act. Most bizarre, though, was Roger Bennett’s going off on a tangent about the DaVinci code and divinity being under attack in America and folding napkins for the rapture and … well, you get the idea … or if, like me, you don’t, then I suspect the remarks weren’t aimed at you (or us) anyway. But really, this DaVinci code thing makes no sense. Bennett’s point seemed to be that the book’s wild success worldwide evidenced some rejection of orthodox Christian notions of God’s divinity since the book posits a counterhistory to Christianity and Jesus’s life. But it’s fiction, you say. And yet, so did Bennett. In fact, this seemed to be what had his hackles up the most … that a fictional story about history and Christianity was popular. I assume RB assumes that people bought the DaVinci code thinking it was true, but the most logical assumption would be, it seems, to assume they bought it because it was a good story – a good fictional one – human beings liking to read good stories as they do. I dunno. Anyway, it was a strange way to set up their closing tune, “Truth is Marching On,” which sold well (as did their too-brief comedy sketch bit which involved the bus driver and some bass-singing antics).
- Which brings us to the most popular song of the week, “Truth is Marching On.” No less than three top-tier groups have recorded and staged the song: Gold City, Talleys, and Legacy 5. It seems that the song’s publisher unfortunately pitched it to all three groups at once, leading to an embarrassment of riches for the song’s writers (including the Booth Brothers’ Jim Brady), but it’s just an embarrassment for the Talleys and Legacy 5, who are left with an anthem on their new projects that they can’t really do much with now that Gold City has (or will) beat them to releasing the cut to radio. You can’t really blame the artists for jumping on the tune. It comes with all the onboard attachments for a big finish: big brassy horns, sweeping lyrics, and a patriotic bridge that gets everybody on their feet everytime (and culturally speaking, the broader American socio-political context of the ongoing military conflict and ideological divisions within the country over the war in Iraq seem to have really exerted a shaping force on artists choices from the stage — even more patriotic and nationalistic rhetoric this year — and songwriting, of which “Truth is Marching On” and its popularity are the most obvious examples). Did the publisher not expect all three groups to bite on so tasty a morsel?
- The Dove Brothers tried very, very hard to have some fun at Ernie Haase and SSQ’s expense – predictably by now, Tim Lovelace was commissioned to “surprise” the DBQ by cutting off their ties and messing up their hair, and then McCray Dove proceeded to prance and “dance” about the stage (while singing some of SSQ’s standards) and generally behaving like a child who acts out in public because he doesn’t get enough attention at home. To the average fan, all this seemed to play very well – funny, a good natured caper between friends and colleagues etc. But to the DBQ’s peers (surely another important segment of the audience that performers are, or ought to be, aware of during this week) the whole business must have been embarrassing, smelling of equal parts desperation and envy.
The Grab bag
- Reggie Sadler gives the best introductions ever.
- Did anyone else feel a little strange when the Pfieffers called all these veterans on stage to recognize them (that part I don’t have a problem with) but then huddled in one corner of the stage with their backs to the vets while the Ps worked on their big patriotic finish? It felt a little … I dunno, … exploitative?
- Hooked on phonetics: my favorite diphthong: Libbi Perry Stuffle’s pronunciation of the world “silence” in “God Walks the Dark Hills”: “sigh–eee-ull-ance!”
- Fashion watch: evidently bangs on guys are the new short ties, at least Mercy’s Mark gives that impression.
- Best (worst) T-shirt: “Jesus Got Er Done.”
PS: AVFL Tshirt Idea 2: Yes, I heard you say “it’s hard to find a guy who sings like a woman and looks like a man.” I’m just not laughing, CAUSE IT’S NOT FUNNY ANYMORE!