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.

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Comments

  1. Tom wrote:

    “John is John. The deep sea is deep. Really very quite deep.” This is classic!

    By the way, is “Calvinary Answers” what a Reformed theologian provides when she takes a test?

  2. Seaton wrote:

    Avery,
    Thanks for the concert insight. This is coming from someone who attends many concerts a year (in the ballpark of 40 or more). It is amazing how one night an artist can be on their game and you see the same artist a month later and you wish you would’ve stayed home. I think ‘off’ nights happen to the best of them. I guess for me Southern Gospel has always been best served in a live setting. I would like to hear more concert insight from you in the future.

  3. Tony Brown wrote:

    Spot on concerning the lack of “it” factor. I hear groups often throughout the year and this has actually been a subject of discussion between my wife and me. So often groups perform well, with good arrangements and close harmony, yet lack that certain zip that makes me pump my fist and say, “Yeah!” Quite often the artists who impart that certain flair to their live performances are not the “name” quartets, and this occurs often enough to make me wonder if there is perhaps a connection between “success” in SG and becoming so polished that you have buffed the life from your performance.
    Always enjoy your perspectives, keep them coming!

  4. THOM wrote:

    I was not at the concert and actually have not been out of the State of TN, save once, in several months. Only one comment here - You mentioned the deplorable house mix: this is something I have experienced many, many times, especially in a high school auditorium. The hs auditorium has to be the WORST acoustics on earth. Then you crank up an over-powered sub woofer, which most groups seem to require now a days, and add tracks that drown out the vocals, and you have one big ole muddy mess. The lows should not muddy up the rest of the mix. This is often because the mid-lows are too prominent, and the mid highs are not up enough. Make the sound more “crisp” where the vocals are right on top of the tracks, not buried in the track, and not drowning out the track.
    And if I may comment on the piano placement in the sound mix: If you are traveling with a piano/keyboard - PLEASE turn it up loud enough for me to hear it. Most SG fans love good piano playing, yet the majority of the time the piano sound can not be distinguished from the canned tracks. Turn it up, Please! I enjoy watching all of these young men year up a keyboard, but hearing them would surely add to the enjoyment of it all. I know sometimes the group is controlling all the sound from the stage and sometimes there is someone else running the house sound. When possible try to set a good house mix, where the vocals are discernable and your audience will get what they came to hear. (plus you will probably sell more product - bonus!)
    Another thing that may have contributed to the poor house mixes the last couple of years is the IN EAR monitor that so many groups are using. I understand the appeal: No big monitors to lug around, (sometimes platforms are too small to accomodate big monitors anyway), each singer can control his own monitor volume etc, etc. BUT, if you are only mixing your sound to sound right in your own monitor then you are often neglecting your sound quality in the house mix. And if you are wearing an ear monitor, please try not to fool with it all night long. Someone asked me why a certain singer was always “scratching his back” “he must have dry skin!” I laughed and said “no, he was trying to get his ear monitor adjusted!” LOL. plus I’ve heard people ask..”is he wearing a hearing aid?” etc. Just get the thing set right before the concert begins or take it out.

    Enough soap-boxing on mixing sound. Later,
    Thom R.

  5. THOM wrote:

    …tear up… not “year up”

  6. THOM wrote:

    While I was not at the Bill Bailey event - may I add opines from other recent singings with KM, Perry’s and BFA?

    Tony Peace is way too animated for my taste. The whole presentation has a vaudevillian flavor to it. Certainly not the Kingsmen of old. More like a “cover band” as you mentioned.

    Joe Hadebank is a great vocalist in my opinion. He should sing a good strong lead line “straight down the middle”. I would like to see Joe come into his own and shake off whatever tendencies there may be to imitate L. Harris or mirror his riffs, etc. Not saying he is trying to imitate, only suggesting that after standing beside him for so long, then stepping into his slot, there may be a tendency to sing it like he did. I think Joe is superb - great stage presence, great eye contact, looks like he enjoys what he is doing. (which is more than i can say for his predecessor) Joe will be one of the great singers of our time if he stays after it and belts out his lead line full voice.

    Nick Trammell: Great tone, great baritone ear - come on out with it Nick - you got it - turn it loose.

    Libbi and Tracy - PROS.

    BFA - the best quartet on the road today in my opinion. Good solid 4 parts, great musicians, great material. Only 2 critiques here: 1.Turn up the piano. Scott McDowell is one of the most brilliant piano men on the road. Work up a solo feature every concert. 2. Add a little variety to the set from time to time. If you see BFA this week, then see them 90 days from now, you are likely to hear the exact same set each time. Brian Free is an excellent emcee and my favorite tenor singer, has been for years. I would suggest having 2 or 3 songs in your pocket that feature just piano and vocals and pepper them in (no pun intended!) whenever you feel led to use them. This would add some variety without requiring new tracks, etc.
    BFA may very well be the best in the business and I hope they don’t get snubbed at the awards this year. They deserve more recognition.

  7. MM wrote:

    I have just started using an in ear monitor as I direct our church choir. they are fantastic. But the first thing i noticed is that wearing an ear bud in each ear, you are totally detached from the audience. You cannot hear anything but the monitor in your ear. I still kept one bud in, and could hear the mix fine, as well as listen to the choir and the house sound. I recommend the in ear only if you have a sound man mixing for you, and you only use one ear bud.

  8. Sheldon wrote:

    Great discussion — Avery you are on the top of your game — lines like “endings so staggered you’d think they came with a chaser and designated driver” and “established harmonic units to anchor whatever festival of diaphragmatic howling is going on vocally” absolutely made me laugh out loud.

  9. Libbi wrote:

    Yeah, we all have bad nights. That’s a given. We do work hard at what we do and try to give it our all every night. I feel Jesus gave us his all, and we should do the same in return. However, sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you work, it just doesn’t come across. A lot of times, if the crowd isn’t excited it makes it harder on the artist. I know we have bad nights, I will be the first to admit it. I respect what others have to say about our portion, because you take the good and apply it and take the bad and work on it.

    Yall were talking about IN EAR monitors, I have to wear them and both. I only have 15% hearing in both ears, so if I don’t have them, you talk about a bad night!! You would hear every dog hollowing for 50 counties. I wouldn’t wear them if I didn’t have too, due to the fact that it does take away the live feel. We have a crowd mike but sometimes it just isn’t the same effects. We have a sound man, and he worked hard in Fort Myers, but that’s just a hard building to get good sound in.

    Now for my final thoughts, I just wish if Avery is gonna come to a concert, he would come up and introduce himself!! I would love to meet him. :0) Then he could share his thoughts of what he thinks about us to our face. LOL Sometimes blogs, emails and text messages have no emotions in them, so sometimes they are taken way out of text. As Paul, wrote to one of the churches in the bible, (paraphrase here) He said, I won’t write what I want to tell you in a letter or on paper, but I want to tell you face to face. I think even he knew then that writing on paper or whatever can be taken out of context and taken the wrong way!!

    Libbi

  10. Skeeter wrote:

    I went to see Bill Bailey’s concert in Vidalia, Ga on January 4th. I have never been more disappointed with a concert. BFA started it off. They did a fantastic job overall, but the music was overpowering the vocals. The triad was a lot better than the bass. I don’t know who set Keith’s mic, but is sounded like manure. He had absolutely no presence in his upper range and the only time you could hear him was when he rolled into the subs.. Then that was all you could hear. It really doesn’t get any better than Bill S. By far the most underrated lead singer in the industry.
    Next was the Perry’s - OH MY!!! Had I not wanted to see the Florida Boys, I would have left then. This was by far the worst performance overall I have ever heard from the Perry’s. Now let me say this. LIb and Tracy are professionals and they do a fantastic job and I do respect them tremendously, but….. The lead singer, Joe, is one of the laziest I have heard in a long time. He constantly rides Lorens stack, you can still hear Loren, in the group singing and barely lets out a sound. He is a great singer, but sing man!! The best song was his solo song, but like Avery I wanted to hear some harmony. The baritone, Nick, does a fine job of putting his part in there and it’s pretty rich for such a young man. He does sing, unlike Joe, but he stands pretty stiff. I’m sure he will loosen up with some time. The Perry’s had major sound issues to begin with, but that is no excuse.
    The Florida Boys were the best overall. They had the tightest harmony and wow can Gene and Glenn sing. Two of the best!!! Now, i’m not a big fan of Josh. He has an arrogance that I hate. Good voice but get over yourself man!! Your not that good.
    The Kingsmen closed the show out… All I can say is…. Well…. I really don’t know what to say. I love the Kingsmen of old. The new “kingsmen” are just a bad imitation of the real thing. Tony is the best thing they have up front and he over does it way too much. I’m going to leave it at that. Maybe next year it will be better… Least I hope!!

  11. Raymond wrote:

    How about showing up to a concert with the expectation to worship Almighty God instead of coming to judge performance! IMO Joe H. is one of the greatest singers to grace a stage and he gives it his all when he sings. He reminds me of singing in the old time way when men loved God and quit the sin business getting under the old constitution…We need more young men to carry this gospel with conviction and passion for a lost and dying world! So lets encourage one another in the Lord!

  12. Karla wrote:

    Give the Perrys a break!! So maybe they aren’t as good as you think they should be, but they are still trying to get things worked out. Don’t you think it is hard for Joseph(a baritone) to switch to a totally different part? He is an awesome singer, and in time he will become a great lead. And give Nick a break. This is his first professional group to sing in. I’m sure it takes a while to become comfortable singing in front of large crowds. He has great potential to become a great baritone singer, but quit trying to bring him down. Until you start running a group and having people tell you how much they love you, don’t criticize a group who already has that!

  13. James wrote:

    Those who can, do. Those who can’t, well they sit at home and write about those who can. Ever heard that? I’m sure you have. Why do you even care about SG music? I understand the site is for criticism, and I actually enjoy reading, you are great with words… but I hear enough bad news, criticism, and reports on the news channels. Can you be just a little uplifting here? Did you happen to consider the many people that may have recieved a blessing amidst all the bad sound, and all the other bad things you had to say about the groups performing that night? The Kingsmen can’t be a cover band for themselves… they are the one and only Kingsmen, and maybe some people like to hear their classic songs. The Perrys are better that they have ever been! Joe is a great lead singer, and they are all coming together great. BF&A… None better. But how could you determine that the piano player is a guiness on the piano, if you couldn’t even hear him in the mix? Sounds like you are negitive about SG for more reasons than one, and you are just looking for all the bad. Are you a disgruntled artist that didn’t make it? Well, if so, don’t worry about that. You probably make more money than most do in the industry. May God bless you, and please keep writing your thoughts about the great SG music… just be a little cautious about other’s feelings. You don’t see beyond the stage life, and witness the hardships of the calling on the road.

    Take Care

  14. Lester wrote:

    Your take on BFa, is a little overrated. BF is probably one of the only genuine singers left, with the exception of the Perry’s and the KInsmen. So you were in for a real treat having actual spritiual people performing that night. And I do agree that Scott McDowell is underrated, that the rest of the group is definitely underrated. And the ministry that these guys have is underrated. They are the only quartet in Gospel music left that can actually sing when the tracks go off…….

  15. Deann wrote:

    It’s amazing the different takes you get from different folks at the same concert! One person may come away saying ‘it was great’ while another picks it to pieces.

    Then I’m reminded of a comment an old preacher friend used to make ” when you come to worship, you only get out as much as you are willing to put in!” Now I believe anyone singing, preaching, teaching or doing anything else for the Lord should strive to do their best but those whose main delight is to tear apart those who do this, aren’t bringing much to the equation.

    Nick has a solid voice and he is continuing to mature and show that talent as he travels, practices and learns. It’s amazing, if someone doesn’t move around they are a wooden indian, if they do, they are ‘jumping and hopping’ too much, they must be in the flesh! You can’t can please everyone and some days you can’t please anyone! For his age and the amount of time he has been singing Nick is doing a tremendous job. The Perrys took a risk by many people’s estimation when they didn’t hire an experienced lead or baritone. Instead they gave two young men the opportunity to show what they could do. The ability to blend and work together by Joe & Nick is great and that risk will pay dividends as this group continues to work together.

    Joe is a fantastic talent who takes to heart the comments made by friends, fans and others. His goal is to be the best he can be and truly use his talent to reach others for the Lord. He is doing that, he may be ridiculed by those who seek to tear apart every note and every movement but his music has blessed hearts and touched people’s lives.

    In the grant scheme of things, that’s more important than a review written about what may have been a bad night.

  16. Ryan wrote:

    Old post, new comment, however I felt the need to. After reading multiple of your reviews and criticisms, I have finally figured out what your problem is. And I’ll say this without being judgmental, because I do not know you, however I am basing my idea off what you said in the article above.

    I couldn’t always figure out why you were constantly bashing everyone who you reviewed (well, almost everyone, mostly everyone) by saying they couldn’t sing, didn’t have talent, sand like a wooden Indian, etc., etc. Going to concerts and bashing the singers when they are clearly giving their all for Christ (maybe you should sing yourself). However, the line in the above review that caught my attention was “…I went to the show amped up at the prospect of hearing a fine show with showstopping music…” And, there, in my opinion lies the problem.

    If you go to a gospel concert for the sole purpose of being entertained by the talent, then you are there for the wrong reason. A gospel concert by a sincere artist is like a secondary church service. You, as a Christian and follower of Christ should go to WORSHIP THE LORD, not bash and criticize the messengers He sends to spread His gospel through song. If you felt nothing, as you admitted above, maybe it’s not the musicians and singers who need to reexamine their act, maybe its you…………..

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