Gaither Vocal Band: “Give it Away”

I had a chance to see the full DVD of Give it Away this past weekend, and though I’m going to complain a bit about for a while (not least of all to retain my curmudgeonly bonafides and keep the interns from thinking I’m a softie), it’s pretty much engrossingly captivatingly good. Before I rhapsodize, however, some nits to pick:

  • Wes Hampton and “Marsh” Hall may be two of the most beautiful men in gospel music but “Marsh” really needs to watch himself in playback and work on the unsightly way he scrunches up his face when he really wants to lean into a note. He looks rather trollish, or faintly like one of the guest-star breeds of alien lifeform on the new Star Treks, the kind that have ridges down the middle of their heads. Meanwhile, Hampton needs to work on keeping his eyes open when he sings. [NOTE: for some context on my comment about Hampton singing with eyes closed, see this long-ago post]
  • What’s with all the camera shots of the crowd that most of the time are just dead shots of dark blots in the darkened theater? Gaither productions have set way too high standards for themselves for this kind of amateurish crap to pockmark their videos at this point.
  • The overwritten Gloria Gaitherized script tries way too hard to make the GVB guys sound like spiritual motivational speakers in their pre-recorded off-stage set-ups of several songs (the goofy “get to know you” out-take-style informal scenes recorded at a restaurant or on a boat or wherever are equally obnoxious to me but that has more to do with my personal tastes than with the content itself, which is more natural and less contrived). Why not let the music speak for itself rather than declaring, as the script has Gaither rather arrogantly doing, that a particular song is “a revolution”? The song, “Give it Away,” is pretty fantastic, but it’s somehow diminishing to label it so before it’s even been sung. By all accounts, Gloria Gaither is the grand dame of graciousness and generosity and no one can doubt her lyrical genius as a songwriter. But one gets the distinct feel that when it comes to her poetry and recitations and monologues, they make it into the final cut because she’s the boss’s wife and less because of her prose rises to the same level as her lyrics.
  • The super-schlocky Larry Morbitt appearance, in which Morbitt performs a bastardized adaptation of “O Sole Mio,” set some kind of record for how little of it I could stand before I skipped it. Alongside an evening full of singing from GVB’s flawless singers, Morbitt’s grating and affected voice suffers in the comparison, as do we who must listen to him oversing his lines in the worst Three Tenor kinda way. More troublingly, though, is the more general drift in Gaither’s style toward the no-brow aesthetic of dinner theater fare that Morbitt’s appearance is part of. Literally. This video is billed as a dinner theater recording. Gaither is so popular now that his crowds will applaud just about anything he puts on the stage (witness the horrendous spectacle of Morbitt’s performance), but that doesn’t necessarily make it good for gospel music, for Gaither’s own music or for his brand. Which is to say, I wonder if Gaither’s listing toward this schlocky style isn’t an inadvertent response to the loss of Mark Lowry’s top-shelf humor. With all this wholesomeness and family-centric, y’all come now, ya’hear stuff, Gaither seems to be surrendering a lot of ground he (and Lowry) claimed together, ground that Gaither has now quite obviously had to give back now that Lowry’s gone. I’ve called Gaither the Lawrence Welk of Christian music before, but mostly that was apropos the age of the old Homecoming Friends. But watching “Give it Away,” I couldn’t help but see more than a little of Welk’s implicit approach in the video: “if we can’t always entertain you with great music, we can at least overwhelm you with feel-goodness.” And I mean, my gosh, the wholesomeness. The dvd felt at times like a festival of Christian Americana – baby-kissing, potluck family-style dinners, red Chevrolet convertibles and good times with old friends — occasionally interrupted with music.

Fortunately, though, the core of the video is GVB performing new material and the majority of it is marvelously original and immediately accessible, the kind of songs you hum to yourself for days and days afteward. The pacing, the writing, the arranging, the instrumentation and of course the vocals are perfectly executed and matched against one another, the GVB performances nearly flawless from beginning to end. There’s just nothing that comes near what Gaither and the GVB are doing in gospel music right now – or really for that matter in Christian music more generally. It’s flabbergastingly wonderful to watch.

More deeply, with this video, Gaither has perhaps most fully articulated his ecumenical Christian ethic of love and inclusion trumping theological particulars or sectarianism. Song after song, culminating in “Give It Away,” touts the virtues of a somewhat vague but boundless, deeply human charity. “If you want more happy than heart can hold … give it away.” “Love can turn the world” etc.

Without the music, this is little more than faith by sloganeering, but of course the music is everything … the clever melodies and subtle, transporting arrangements and countless little details (just the way a phrase is clipped or a note suspended). Somehow it coheres into a feeling – what I called, borrowing from someone else in an earlier post, “emotional belief” – that seems not just sufficient but ample enough to “turn to the world” itself. This is the gospel of Gaither: faith defined by individual generosity and fellow feeling, belief based on the assumption of human goodness and worthiness, a vision of God as the repository for our highest hopes and fondest dreams as well as the resolution of all anxieties and disquietude. True this is good bidness. Ecumenicalism sells better than sectarianism. But Gaither has been too true to this ideal for too long for it to be only tactical. And besides, not only is it ecumenical, it’s also a bit latently subversive. If it does not repudiate any particular strain of Protestant theology or belief, neither does this vision of Christian living give much sway to the fiercely partisan and ideological brands of sectarian Christianity dominating Protestantism today.

Perhaps no other single person embodies the humanistic Christianity of Gaither’s late style better than his new house pianist, Gordon Mote, who is the bonus standout in the video. Mote is not as flashy or flamboyant as Anthony Burger and he will never be The Performer that Burger was. But he is, I think, a better technician and more supple stylist than Burger ever was, which is not meant at all to take anything away from Burger, who was deeply and inimitably gifted. Rather it is to speak to how boggling capable Mote is. And I’m not just saying this because he’s blind, though to watch his hands fly across the keyboard with easy exactness and breezy confidence is to feel as though one is witness to some kind of dreamscape or magical or divine force at work. Gaither’s crowds will probably always prefer Burger to Mote, but I much prefer Mote’s style. Plus his can sing well enough to hold down his own on solos.

Which brings me to my point about Gaither’s humanism. I don’t think Gaither has ever really cared too much for ideological Christianity, but he’s popular enough now that he doesn’t have to apologize for caring mainly and only about good music and the fellow feeling and sense of a community and common Christian concern it builds, explicitly religious or not. Mote is not some heathen unbeliever, but he has spent most of his professional life in country music (I just put Martina McBride’s Timeless album back in the cd player in my car and marveled again at Mote’s keyboard work). A generation ago – that is, before Gaither’s rise as gospel impresario, during the post-Elvis reactionary heyday of the ministry-minded purists – this kind of public celebration of a “secular” musician in gospel music would have been an unheard of heresy. And if there’s one thing above all else to credit Gaither and Gaitherization with, it’s humanizing and making more decent gospel music and its culture. Gaither lives out what most people know but can’t say or act on: gospel music attracts all kinds — many of them unorthodox or heterdox — who find in gospel music something deeply validating and gratifying, even if it isn’t what official orthodoxy says it should be.

It seems most important to Gaither that the songs he stages and the people he hires convey the message of charity and generosity and love one unto another that he values, whatever form that loving and caring and generosity make take – filial, spiritual, platonic, even romantic (Mote sings an unabashed love-song during his solo turn on “Give it Away”). Whatever. I’m not suggesting that Gaither isn’t a Christian or that he won’t, when backed into a corner, run to the right and outflank his critics by seizing the explicitly Christanized ground more typically associated with traditional conservative, straight-ahead southern gospel (the Marsha Stevens fracas undisputedly proved this point). But Gaither goes out of his way on a regular basis to build shows and create music around a concept of Christianity that, when you look closely at it, would probably seem remarkably foreign to many devout evangelicals. As one of the best new songs on the video says, “If coal can turn to diamonds, and sand can turn to pearls. … then love can turn the world.” Not save it. Not cleanse it with the blood of the lamb. Not even turn it away from its unrighteous sinfulness. Just turn it. What kind of love does the turning is up to you, the listener, to determine. Gaither’s main concern seems to be not that you act or believe or love in a certain, prescribed way, but just that you act … sincerely.

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  1. smells wrote:

    I stopped reading in my tracks and repeated outloud, “beautiful men?” I thought your name was Doug, so I’m assuming your a man. What’s up with this? Okay, I will finish reading now. However I’m greatly disturbed at the moment.

  2. RF wrote:

    I reviewed this DVD on a nearly secret blog very differently, but this review made me think a little about it. I’ve noticed the faces Hall makes, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the faces Jonathan Wilburn or McCray Dove make. Yes, I regularly skip through Gloria’s prose. Doesn’t everyone? But I’m surprised to find a very dark attitude toward Bill Gaither’s attempt to let everyone into the show regardless of religious belief or denomination.

    It’s no secret. From the beginning of the Gaither videos, he’s said time and time again that he is not a preacher who is up proclaiming the word. He’s commented many times that Hovie Lister had to answer the pundits about whether he was an entertainer or a minister and in both cases he said yes. Unlike so many in ministry, one only has to look at the songs he penned over the years and see the beliefs he has. Gaither just wants to send a subtle message to those listening that, yes there is a God and his son was Jesus and this whole thing is what Christian living is all about. Love you neighbor, something which many modern-day Christians regularly forget, is a commandment. Yes, the blood is important, but having fun and lightening up is too. I have wondered for the last 26 years why Christians have become so angry. So angry, in fact, that your political affiliation can come between those who have been friends for years. I’m glad to say that Bill Gaither, a noted Republican, doesn’t see it that way.

    It’s totally refreshing to see someone anywhere get up on stage and try to get people together again instead of one Christian looking at another and seeing red or blue. Getting people together instead of harping on one or two “hot button” issues that will never be corrected in mine or your lifetimes.

    I loved this music on the DVD and the feeling I got when I watched it. It was almost like it was when my father was singing back in the 50’s and 60’s. Just a bunch of Christians singing songs, having a good time and loving each other. Of course, that’s what Gaither has done all along. No preaching and great music. I call it refreshing.

  3. Aaron Swain wrote:

    Um… just reading where you said Wes Hampton needs to work on keeping his eyes open when he sings…
    Alrite buddy, tell ya what… get a copy of “L5 and Greater Vision: Live At The Palace”, and watch Tony Jarman, the tenor for L5 at the time.. He closes his eyes more than Hampton does.. just thought I’d share that.

  4. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Singers frequently close their eyes when hitting a high note. Tenors just encounter that problem somewhat more often than other singers. :)

  5. KB wrote:

    My only beef is with the tracks. Gaither’s got a full band that appears to be playing everything the track is doing, why not just LET THE BAND PLAY?! The real reason is because the Vocal Band (at least, when I saw them on the webcast when this was originally taped) was singing along with prerecorded tracks.

    This was most obvious with the title song, “Give It Away.” The song starts with an acapella chorus. During the first take, the tambourine on the tracks gave a synchopated countoff, and the guys would come in. The problem was, the synchopation threw off the group, and the pre-recorded vocals started before the live singers did, prompting a VERY quick “Nope, HOLD IT!” from Guy Penrod. The tracks immediately stopped, was restarted, and Guy verbally counted off with the tambourine. After that count off, they came in right where they should have.

    This is not the first time I’ve caught such “karaoke-isms” with the GVB. “Let Freedom Ring” (or maybe it was the counterpart DVD, can’t remember which one), the DVD started with “I’m Gonna Sing.” At the end of the song, the four singers held their “me” note out until the very last beat. The problem is, the track’s vocals cut out earlier, and there was a dramatic volume drop, almost as if the group had been cut in half.

    And don’t get me started on the “Praise God, Hallelujah”-’s on “When We All Get Together”…..

  6. Lacey wrote:

    LOL, smells, I going to choose to think (without being in Doug’s head or ever having met him) the “beautiful men” part was just to compare with the “troll” comment! Kind of like, I, as a female, could say that a certain girl was “HOT” but she really needs a mint!

  7. Matt wrote:

    You may not have known this, but the “crowd” of fans on Give it Away was by invitation only and was just family, friends, and other close relations of the GVB and Gaither himself. Which does tend to help explain the nearly scripted audience reactions just like the scripted “comedy”

  8. Teresa wrote:

    Often singers close their eyes in a spiritual way to sing to the Lord and not to the people as a local church singer i get neverous if i look at the people so i close my eyes to sing to the Lord and fill his spirit connecting to mine without worring what others are thinking or doing that wway i don’t get distracted just a thought

  9. Doug wrote:

    I don’t know what your “agenda” is, but obviously it runs far beyond the worthiness of Bill and Gloria Gaither and the musical pleasure they and their friends give to millions. There’ll be no turning these sour grapes of yours into wine. Being you can’t be very pleasant.

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