L5: Live in Music City
Live in Music City
If, as Cecilia Tichi claims in her book High Lonesome, the experience of country music starts in the car with the radio, the experience of southern gospel starts in the pew, the auditorium seat, the folding chair of the county fair. The live performance remains the basic unit of experience of in southern gospel. Bathed in the bright lights of the stage, arrayed in the poetry of musical lyrics, brought to life in the magical moment of live performance, southern gospel becomes psychospiritually accessible, it becomes experientially real, in a word, it is felt, in ways that no other form of contemporary evangelical expression can rival – not sermons, not motivational talks, not televangelism, not movies, not end-times fiction. None of it. To quote myself, live albums aren’t made, they happen.
Sometimes what happens in the single space of a live album can take years to bring off. Legacy 5’s latest project, Live in Music City, is in some ways the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of cultivating and planning and building that has created an impressively loyal fan base. Cult of personality is probably a little too strong of a description, but to say it and take it back leaves just about the right impression of L5’s effect on its fans. Roger Bennett’s and Scott Fowler’s big brother/little brother relationship on stage (their way of updating the Cathedrals’ “George and the Old Man” dynamic), supported by Glenn Dustin’s and Scott Howard’s Mutt and Jeff routine, have endeared L5 as a set of personalities and personae to a core of fans who, judging from the kind of email I get from people hacked off at me for saying anything remotely critical about “my boys,” think of the group as family members they see once or twice a year (especially popular is “Cuz,” the L5 insiders’ nickname for Dustin, who I seriously think has spawned a whole race of rabidly devoted Cuzzies … seriously, they’re emails are that weird).
Live in Music City manages to capture the intensity of L5’s effect on its fans, who keep selling out by the ever increasing thousands at the Opry Land Hotel every Memorial Day. At NQC, I heard L5 roadtest the first and last songs from the album: “Strike Up the Band’ and “Truth is Marching On,” but neither song made nearly impression in Louisville that it does on the cd. “Strike Up the Band,” a Diane Wilkinson number, is without question the best southern gospel opening tune to come along since, well, “Oh Come Along,” which Wilkinson also wrote (for the Cats back in the mid 90s; and if you’re keeping score at home, “Oh Come Along” replaced another Cats’ opener, “Plan of Salvation” as the strongest lead-off song for a live set). Like “Oh Come Along,” Strike Up the Band” embodies the anatomy of a strong opening song: showcase the group’s key strengths, include a few solo lines for the piano, and do so in a snappy upper-mid-tempo fashion. In “Strike Up the Band,” a vocal inversion on the last chorus puts tenor Frank Seamans in the clutch and he comes through expertly without overdoing it or showboating. Transferring the melodic center of the song to the tenor range has the effect of taking it up a notch early on, of reaching out emotionally to the crowd and confirming their desire to be entertained – we came here full of excitement and here’s a reason to be excited. And the transition between “Strike Up the Band” and “The Blood Covers it All” is a textbook example of letting solidly arranged music do the work of good showmanship for you. The crowd is roaring with delight at the end of “Strike Up the Band,” wanting more of what they just heard, and right in that moment when they just might wonder if they’ll get a turnaround (forgetting in their excitement, of course, that you never turn around your opening tune), they get hit with the intro of the next song – “The Blood Covers it All.”
Sometimes an introduction – just the instrumental intro of a song – can be so captivating, can manage to generate an enormous sense of anticipation and deferred excitement about what’s coming next, that it rewards listening to over and over by itself. This hasn’t happened to me in a while, so I had sort of forgotten how pleasant it is to be ambushed in this way and laugh out loud in admiration of simple brilliance. “The Blood Covers it All” is not a flashy tune, but it earns its keep the old-fashioned gospel way: with patiently built blocks of close harmonies and familiar lyrical tropes that call forth the experience they describe: “I’ll never again be condemned by my sin for the blood covers it all.” You’ll have to hear the song to understand how the tune and arrangement repurpose old images of blood and redemption into a musical testimonial about the joy of second chances and the gratitude that forgiveness evokes. But you won’t need to intellectualize things quite that much to enjoy it. For my part, I was hooked from the first. The intro kicks hard twice on the four chord and then falls into these pile-driving thirds that hammer out an irresistible come-to-Jesus kinda cadence. It’s the rare sort of new song that manages to be both fresh and familiar all at once, so that you find yourself singing along with it the first time you hear it.
Unfortunately, most of what “The Blood Covers it All” achieves is promptly squandered by a big zero of a tune from Rodney Griffin, “Temporary Tomb.” Roger Bennett, whose emcee work is typically outstanding, tries really hard in his set up to convince everyone how good the song is – going so far as to joke about how Griffin usually keeps the best stuff for Greater Vision but in this case he must’ve screwed up because L5 got a good ‘un or something like that. But it only takes a few bars of the song’s dreadfully unimaginative melody and stylistic incoherence (it sorta sounds like a high-school cheer - “Mohommed … or Buddah … which one … will save ya” - crossed with a Jesus Rock garage band) to realize that there’s more truth to Bennett’s joke than fiction (the grating guitars and the blaring horns sound like the arranger was trying to distract from the go-nowhereism of the song, but it only ends up making things more unbearable). Like “Right Side of the Dirt,” “Temporary Tune” has the feel of a hook or a good title that never quite found a good song to go with it.
But in general these numbers are the exception and not the rule (and the crowd doesn’t seem to care anyway). The music is for the most part impeccably arranged, the highlight being a pleasing little bit of vocal gimmickry at the end of “I’ve Been Changed.” The song is a Glenn Dustin vehicle that he sings serviceably well (and this is probably a good point to say how nice it is that this live album hasn’t been scrubbed squeaky clean with vocal overdubs after the fact … indeed, it’s all the more rewarding to hear Dustin drop a few notes or go sharp in places and still pull the song off because that’s what actually happens in live settings. Perfection isn’t necessary. But showmanship and stage presence are, even Dustin’s particular awe-shucks overgrown-boy brand of it.) But the real hook of the song is a rhythmically suspended bridge that staggers the lead-ins of each part one on top of the other until they all get on their notes and swoop together into the rest of the chorus. It takes the crowd a few goes with this before they get it, but then when they do, they start screaming with delight – actually screaming. Even allowing for some cooking of the applause tracks in post-production, the song really kills.
Other strong moments include “Stay Close to Me,” one of two songs that feature Roger Bennett vocally. Bennett’s voice hasn’t grown on me any since I first started hearing him a decade or so ago during his vocal cameos with the Cats. And I’ve mostly given up complaining about the schizophrenia that Bennett’s sometimes singing creates on stage for L5 because, frankly, I’m pushing against the ocean here. Not only do such complaints seem ungenerous during Bennett’s grim struggle with leukemia, but practically speaking his vocal walk-ons for one or two songs bring the house down. Of course, so do five minutes of somebody’s kid stammering her way through “Jesus Wuves Me.” Which is why I continue to believe that Bennett’s strength is at the piano and as an emcee, that his turns as a soloist come off a little like the president of the firm starring in all the company’s ads because he can, not because he can actually act. But then this is why I’m here and they’re there. At any rate, “Stay Close to Me” and “But God” (which, in the interest of fairness, I should probably mention is also a Rodney Griffin song) are both strong tunes that would stand on their own even without the powerful emotional effect Bennett creates when he sets up and sings a song in the context of cancer. The album winds up strongly with “My, My, My,” backed up by the Voices of Lee choir, and “Truth is Marching On” (you can read here about how and why the performance of this song is essentially a moot point now).
Listening to the album, I’m reminded of something a friend of mine said after hearing L5 a few times live. They’re much better in ensemble work than any one member is solo. This is especially true of Seamans, who can be underwhelming by himself but can singlevoicedly make the difference between good and great for the group in ensemble work (in this case, see “Strike Up the Band” and “My, My, My” especially). This is, I think, more than just so much proof of that old truism about sums and parts. L5’s sound and their act have crystallized into a single, disciplined expressive style capable of creating the conditions in which it will succeed, capable of making its own emotional weather on stage, capable, in short, of making live music, happen.Email this Post