Averyfineline on the frontlines: KM, Perrys, BFA
Date: Saturday, January 6
Location: Fort Myers, FL
Setting: Riverdale High School auditorium (a nice venue, but waiting for the show to start I was struck by how ugly and sad-looking the typical gospel music stage is)
Occasion: Bill Bailey event, part of a package of concerts Bailey put on with these groups in Florida
Average age guesstimate: 62
Opening act: None, unless you count Bailey’s interminable sales pitch. Though he managed to create a small stampede for his product table with a pre-sale ticket promotion he bundled with some compilation CDs cast in the
pall aura of old-timey nostalgia, one can only listen to even the most experienced and gifted of pitch-men (which Bailey is) for so long. Why not create a pre-show video that loops through a set of ads like they do at the movies these days? Bailey could put the hardsell on himself for a few seconds right before curtain up without exasperating everyone before the show even starts.
Attendance: ca 600 (I’m still really bad at this, though, so take this fwiw)
Cost: $13 advance; $15 at the door. A very white bread bunch, which seems about right, given it was a room dominated by snow-birds from everywhere points north. Of course this also meant they didn’t get excited about much of anything (including the Matthew Holt’s conspicuous Happy Goodman Hands during one of the Perrys songs from the Goodmans project), but as you’ll see below, I’m not sure that was their fault.
That I haven’t really had the ambition to write about the concert for a few days sorta captures my feeling about it generally. It was fine, but I think I must have gone with over-high expectations, because I went away seriously disappointed and was in a downright foul mood by the time I got home. I described all this to a friend of mine the day after the concert, and he replied: “Unfortunately, I’ve learned to lower my expectations before going to any sg concerts (thanks, mostly, to Greater Vision a few years back) so there’s no where to go but up.” Sigh.
THE KINGSMEN were the KM. There’s the recognizable Kingsmen style – built around two signature moves: the double-timed chorus leading onto endings so staggered you’d think they came with a chaser and designated driver; and the singing of choruses in a pianissimo-to-fortissimo style rather than using a proper bridge. But the group really sounds more like a cover band doing all the old Kingsmen’s tunes and aping the KM style … with a really tight band and a name that just happens to be the same as the Kingsmen of Hammil and Foxy. So maybe there was an opening act after all.
Two stand outs: Tony Peace looks positively shining these days. He’s jazzed up his hair … let it go curly or something (don’t tell Roy), and he must be getting more sun of some kind. Whatever it is, it burnishes his general easy-going management of the stage to a warm glow. For my money, he’s too goofy and over-the-top as an emcee, always cheapseating and going for every easy laugh, and sometimes you get the idea that singing his lines well is an afterthought. But having just watched PSQ collapse in on itself in the last 18 months, Peace looks prescient, having gotten out and landed solidly on his feet with the KM before his departure would look – as McCune’s and Ishee’s did, ever so faintly – like so much ship-jumping.
And then there’s Nick Succi. The best thing about this guy’s playing is his immense fascination with inventive fills and detailed arcs between and behind vocal phrases, at which he is masterfully good. This is also the worst thing about his playing. So obviously captivated is Succi by the endless possibilities of this or that improvisational flourish that he sometimes ends up undermining the arrangement as a whole. Were he playing for Steely Dan or Jackson Brown or Alicia Keys, this theoretically and rhythmically sophisticated back-fill might be fine. But the KM’s straight-ahead style means that what’s often needed from the piano are blocked chords and clearly established harmonic units to anchor whatever festival of diaphragmatic howling is going on vocally. The good news is that there’s a hint of Justin Ellis in Succi’s playing that could very well win out over the indisciplined wonderment of his current style.
Perhaps because THE PERRYS are among the two or three groups I always want to hear in gospel music today, they were the night’s biggest disappointment to me. They sang commendably enough, of course. But the arrival of a new baritone, Nick Trammell, combined with Joseph Habedank’s move to lead, has really made the center of the Perrys’ sound go wobbly.
Trammell often looks and sings like a wooden Indian. Indeed it might help him refine his stage presence and singing style if he watched himself on a video playback to see how closed-off he appears - and sometimes sounds - on stage (this watching oneself on playback is not for the faint of heart; video screening your own teaching is a standard graduate school torture device, and reduced most of us to tears, and not ones of joy).
Meanwhile, Habedank gives the distinct impression that he has virtually no clue how to sing lead properly and very little interest in finding out – all the improvisations and vocal fills and endless riffing off and around the melody … it’s exhausting to the point of distraction (if there’s a bright side to any of this, it’s that Angie Hoskins has a vocal twin). What made him such a shining star in the baritone role – his bursts of brilliance in a line here or a solo there, his excellent ability to cheer on Loren Harris or Libbi Perry Stuffle during one of their frequent moments in the spotlight, without upstaging them, the general aura he gave off as the wunderkid on the bus years ahead of his musical time, that little hanky in his hand – all this makes for a weak leading man (and not for nothing, Gerald Wolfe has already trademarked the man-hanky).
Rather than being a supporting actor as he was, he now must be A Presence. And yet, when he’s not oversinging his lead lines, he often looks bemusedly aloof during his ensemble work. Loren Harris could maybe get away with standing flatfooted and delivering his lines with that smirky grin on his face because … well, he was Loren Harris. Habedank, on the other hand, comes off as the guy glorying in the promotion but still operating in the mindset of the baritone who never gets in the way of the Twin Powers of Loren Harris and Libbi Perry.
Plainly put, with Harris gone and a very young Trammell in the mix, there’s just no one in the group left to hold his own against Libbi Perry, who just absolutely dominates everything, even when she’s just singing harmony in the ensemble. Seriously, she’s a force of nature and God, I think.
The real problem may have been the song selection, though. They led off with FOUR mid-tempo tunes, beginning with “Still Blessed,” which has never done much for me, but did even less butted up against three other easy-listening numbers. Libbi sells it, of course, but still … They only had half an hour (and then a three-song encore later in the night) and they frittered away 12+ minutes of it on a bunch of gospel elevator music. Habedank and pianist Matthew Holt did an acoustic thing that they wrote. A new tune, as yet unrecorded, called “Grip of Grace.” It’s good, strong stuff, much better than anything they’ve written together that’s been cut. In fact, it was the best song of the night, though I was aching for them to have Libbi or Lil’ Nick put some harmony lines behind Habedank on the chorus (note to H&H: the song’s lyrically strong except for a line near the beginning: “this grip that I am in is mine because of grace” … a grip can’t be mine or yours or anybody’s except the one doing the gripping, in this case God; I know what you mean but the line is weak and padded). But before and after that, things never rose above the serviceable. They closed with “Rest My Case.” Even discounting that I would have rather heard “Calvinary Answers,” it sounded as if sung by rote. They came back and did three songs to close out their night, but their set felt phoned it.
BRIAN FREE & ASSURANCE turned in a fine set – built around “For God So Loved” and “Long as I Got,” both of which were big favorites. I deeply admire the way Free has taken a directionless trio from 15 years ago and turned it into a headlining quartet full of first-rate young talent singing new material, backed up by more than one piece of live instrumentation (no small feat … compare BF’s success in building a group from the ground up to the wrecking ball job that Ed Enoch did on The Stamps or Kelly Nelon Thompson Clarke’s virtual immobilization of the great Nelon name during roughly the same time BFA has been touring as a quartet). And yet, I felt as I almost always do with them: like I’m missing something everyone else sees or gets.
I’ve seen them half a dozen times in this, their heyday of the last few years and I just can’t figure out what the fuss is about. Bass singer Keith Plott is clearly underrated, but then again he often gets mediocre songs thrown his way too (such as “Deep Deep Sea” from their latest cd … this song baffles me … the sea is deep, yes. But then that’s the point of metaphorizing God’s love and forgiveness as a sea in the first place … to say God’s sea of forgetfulness is a deep deep sea is rather like saying of John the Baptist, “His Name is John.” Both tunes are lyrically self-evident with a hook made of pure tautology: John is John. The deep sea is deep. Really very quite deep). Bill Shivers, ditto, mostly. Underrated and kept on a short leash (though “Man of Sorrows” is a fine, fine tune). The pianist, Scott McDowell, may very well be a creative genius of an accompanist. Certainly he reminds one of Schroeder, the way he performs as if entranced, playing from an entirely different existential universe.
All that talent, so what gives? Maybe I need to like Brian Free’s voice – an acquired taste, for sure – and his stage manner more than I do. For all his easiness and confidence, BF is NOT a charismatic stage man – his stage persona is primarily that of the neighbor everybody wants for his reliability and unobtrusiveness – but that can’t account for it all, surely? Can it?
If this seems more pleading confessional than review at this point, that’s because I suppose it is. I went to the show amped up at the prospect of hearing a fine night of showstopping music and ended up unmoved by at least two sets that were technically well done but uninspiring. Perhaps I’ve gone too long without a fix for my gospel jones, long enough that nothing can live up to what the music could be. At least I suspect this is what my friend was trying to tell me the other night.
It didn’t help of course that the sound was deplorable. Honestly, I expected far, far more from a Bill Bailey event. The tracks swamped the vocals all night, and the roaring lows drowned out the mids and highs from start to finish. And BFA’s piano was simply not in the house mix at all. What thuh …? I want at least $7 back.Email this Post