Averyfineline on the Frontlines: Gaither Homecoming Tour
Date: Thursday, January 25, 2007
Location: Fort Myers, FL
Setting: Germain Arena
Occasion: Gaither Homecoming Tour, part of a big swing through Florida to catch all the snowbirds
Average age guesstimate: 61
Opening act: The very funny Kevin Williams cracked not a single joke in the entire 10 minutes he stood on the stage playing a few hymns from his new solo guitar project. (Williams’ is a welcome return to the Homecoming Tour. He works well with Bill Gaither in the straight man role. Mark Lowry will always be the standard by which Gaither comedy is measure, but frankly over the course of a four-hour event, I prefer Williams’ dryer, more cerebral humor to Lowry’s full-throttle aim for the cheapseats with every joke. Which is to say, Lowry is a funny guy who’s smart; Williams is a smart guy who’s funny … and Mark Lowry fans get plenty of slapstick and cheap laughs from Rory the Sound Guy, so everybody goes home happy).
Attendance: ca 6,000-7,000 (I gather there were about 12,000 at the Orlando event a week or so ago)
Cost: A friend of mine kindly scored me two free tickets (MNP was in town for work, coincidentally enough), so I honestly can’t say.
“Them Gaithers” has long been a term by which to designate not just Bill Gaither and his wife, Gloria, but whatever troupe of performers takes the stage alongside Bill and Gloria on any given night. In the 15 years since Gaither first started recording events of the sort that grew into the Homecoming Tour, death, self-perpetuating success, and reality have all exerted their shaping force on gospel music’s longest-running show – so much so that “them Gaithers” today is a much different group, putting on a much more agile and stylistically diverse show, than those from the early days of the tour.
With so many of the old friends dearly departed and so many of the younger ones off enjoying careers launched in large part by Gaither’s influence, Gaither’s Homecoming Family has become a more tightly knit clan, more casual and relaxed together, less uneasy alongside one another, and more comfortable performing as a group.
Partly this owes to the subsidence of the personality-driven Homecoming event. Whereas in the Homecoming heydays people came to see Howard and Vestal and Jake and George and Janet and Ivan, today’s events largely put individual personalities in service of a Variety Show for Christians. Certainly, Homecoming fans still feel strongly about their favorite Homecoming friends. But with the exception of maybe Guy Penrod, there’s no single star on the tour – besides Bill and Gloria Gaither themselves – who individually generates the kind of excitement and attention that the Homecoming Friends still collectively command.
Thursday night in southwest Florida, “them Gaithers” numbered about 20 of the usual suspects: among them, Lynda Randle, Gordon Mote, The Easters, Signature Sound, Ivan Parker, Ben Speer, Joy Gardner, Russ Taff, and Jessy Dixon, plus the Gaither Vocal Band. That four hours of music from this group precipitated in some very nice moments is a tribute not just to the durability of the Homecoming concept and its execution, but also the intelligence and talent of the artists involved. That much of the four hours was but serviceably sung and politely received by a crowd that nevertheless outlasted me (I left during the third chorus of “Because He Lives”) bespeaks the intense affection that reliably good — if not always or even often great – music can generate over a decade or so.
There are personal “moments” – ones that are special for the individual but perhaps go unnoticed by everyone else – and then what I call “live” moments – those instances when an audience awakens to the realization that something has happened on stage. Personal moment number one came a few minutes into the show with Jeff and Sheri Easter, and when I say “Jeff and Sheri Easter” and I really mean the neglected, underutilized, and dazzlingly voiced Charlotte Penhollow Ritchie. She’s got by all appearances a great gig: sings a few songs each night, backs up someone else on a few others, gets to travel with her family, and appear in front of thousands at a time. Not bad considering what the Nelons, with whom she got her start, are (not) doing today.
But still, it’s hard to listen to such a great voice go so unused, especially when it breaks through the ordinary every now and then, as it did during “Over and Over.” The emotional center of the song revolves around a single word near the end of the chorus – “victory” – sung on the fourth of the chord, which gives way to the hook and the song’s end: “over and over again.” Penhollow Ritchie’s harmonies in these passages are piercing (in a good way), placed deftly and in right proportion to the group’s vocal balance – the kind of thing that when you hear it you just laugh out loud and point (again, in a good way). Perhaps this would become old hat if she sang more, but still … that’s a risk I’d be willing to take. At one point, MNP leaned over to me and hissed: “Do ya think they’re ever gonna let her SING anything?” This was not a question. And the answer was “no.”
The first real “live” moment of the evening came courtesy of Lynda Randle. She opened her two-song setlet with an mid-tempo arrangement of the old black gospel number “Walk with Me, Lord.” Her voice is, of course, extraordinarily deep, so that by the final chorus of the song she was singing, in the key of F, an E above middle C in a captivatingly rich, full, throaty tone (later in the night, during the old-timey quartet hour, she would sing the bass line). But things came alive during the song’s break … she points to Gordon Mote on the piano and Mote serves up one of those big, wide-opened solos in that barroom barrel style playing he favors – arms splayed out to each end of the piano working their way toward the center via rollicking 8ths and 16ths. Mote is not a good player “for a blind guy.” He’s a stupefyingly magnificent piano artist whose blindness only magnifies the intensity of his talent.
Randle is such a gracious, self-effacing stylist that the obvious pleasure she took in surrendering 8 bars of her song to Mote somehow swept through the room momentarily, carrying her through to the end of her song on a wave a good will. (Personal moment No. 2 came during Mote’s solo song, “Through Her Eyes,” on which he both sings and plays. Oddly enough this didn’t seem to resonate with the rest of the audience, though perhaps that’s because of its lack of any clearly religious content.)
Randle, incidentally, also gets props for the best outfit of the night, this sleek black pant suit with a slit up her calf and some red heels that I think might have been last worn by Roxy Hart. Cha-cha. (Worst outfit award goes to Jeff Easter, who clearly did NOT read the GQ article on the perils of the untucked shirt.)
Speaking of style, one has – of course – to speak of Ernie Haase and Signature Sound. I hadn’t seen them perform in about a year, and the degree to which nonverbal stylistics – the look, the choreography, the retro-hip quartet revivalism – has come to dominate their act is remarkable. Originally, EHSSQ would sing standing (by comparison to their current style) more or less flatfooted, and then break out with some little choreographed bit or two (remember that “Stand By Me” made such a mark because the dancing stood out so much from everything else). These days, nary a moment passes without some kind of fancy foot work, hip swiveling, shoulder rolling, skull gyrating and assorted other contortings of the body worthy of live action figurines.
The PR euphemism for all this is “energetic,” but the word that keeps coming to mind watching EHSSQ is “contrived.”
Take Ryan Seaton, the group’s lead singer (though in fairness, singling him out is only a way of identifying in his individual behavior tendencies that run amok in all the group except pianist Roy Webb, who manages to retain a great deal of his own personal dignity just by having to stay seated to do his job). In Seaton one sees the worst kind of over-rehearsed stage mannerisms that EHSSQ embodies, quite literally: every step, each movement and motion practiced to a slickness that only comes from copious repetition in front of a mirror – and, one imagines, a few winks and nonchalant nods of self-satisfaction … yeah I’m cool. Seaton doesn’t walk anywhere on stage. When he’s not gliding, sliding, grooving or doing a kind of bastardized moon walk, he struts as though on a cat walk modeling the new spring line of Calvin Klein tank tops – somewhat saucily leading with his hips and ostentatiously following through with his shoulders. Though this is meant, presumably, to convey grace and suavity simultaneously, it comes off more like a manly sashay.
For an Andrew Lloyd Weber show, this would be fine. For the unironic Homecoming stage, it’s hard to know what to think of all this. The main problem is that EHSSQ takes their own campy outlandishness so seriously. I don’t mean they shouldn’t work hard or sing well (they do). And they are having fun, obviously, in a way that makes no apologies for being entertaining. I applaud all this. What’s missing is any permission to laugh. Their performance of “Then Came the Morning” (at least I think that was the song) included this elaborately choreographed vignette in which two guys crossed by one another while the other two watched, and then at a precisely timed point, the watchers crossed one another while the original crossers stopped to watch … you get the idea. The unnecessary intricacy of it all was touchingly comical, but only unintentionally so. The earnestness with which they stepped and turned and pivoted and crossed clearly conveyed that this was meant to add to the spiritual heftiness of the song, whichever one it was.
That I can’t recall which song exactly rather gets to the crux of the matter, though: are they intentionally gilding the lily here or do they just not trust themselves to survive and thrive as musicians rather than ambassadors of groovy gospel?
It’s not that they are unable to stand still and sing. Their respectful, acoustical rendition of the old Gaither tune “Lovest Thou Me” was full of deeply satisfying singing, especially from Seaton, who has grown into a lead singer capable of organizing a song around his voice without bullying the ensemble (though note to EHSSQ: the fuss you made about recording “Then Came the Morning” pretty much established your fealty to Old Bill; you can start singing songs someone else’s songs now, too). Seaton’s emergence as a bankable lead singer not only enhances EHSSQ’s sound, but distributes the vocal labor more evenly. Among other things, this takes the pressure off Haase, who despite being the star is (like Bill Gaither) vocally the weakest link in his own group. The trouble is that there isn’t anywhere near enough of this Seaton, this EHSSQ – the careful and subtle musical stylists bending a song to their will without breaking its spirit. Instead we get a lot of amateur Broadway dancing and marching-band formation movements.
To the extent that EHSSQ is exploding longheld notions about what a gospel male quartet must look and act like, their preoccupation with the aesthetic is understandable, even admirable in a way (though it must drive McCray Dove nuts to see EHSSQ shamelessly ripping off all of Dove’s old moves in a song like “Get Away Jordan,” down to the throwing of the suit jacket and the crowd taunting, pretending to walk off stage within out an encore, asking leadingly, you don’t wanna hear any more of that do ya?). Over dinner, MNP told me of a friend of hers – educated, independent, professional, Christian, living in the Southwest – who has no interest in southern gospel but has become a fan of EHSSQ mainly because they aren’t anything at all like what sg outsiders think a quartet is.
If this iconoclasm works – and for the moment and in the Homecoming context it very clearly does; crowds love the idea of fat-free cotton candy – it does so on the basis of its contrast to everything and everyone else around it. It’s no coincidence that EHSSQ followed Lynda Randle. The real test of EHSSQ’s durability as a brand name will be how well this product ages – which is a question not only of how capable they will be of fulfilling the cartoonish and physically demanding expectations they’ve created among their fans, but also whether the novelty of their style will retain its appeal as these guys cease to be “boys” and begin detaching themselves – as they inevitably must at some point – from the Gaither magic.
To watch the Gaither Vocal Band is to see what EHSSQ could become and what exactly they cannot be if they want a spot on the Homecoming Tour: gimmickless headliners. The GVB’s set mostly covers tunes from the Give it Away record, which I’ve reviewed here, and about which I have only one small thought to add after hearing them live.
Gaither and the Vocal Band have perfected what I’ve come to think of as the post-quartet ending. The GVB’s endings tap into that preverbal desire all gospel music fans have to experience the resolution of harmonic dissonance to consonance, but gone are the vertiginous staggerings and sloppy swoopings of voices into their final tones, a la the Kingsmen or the Doves or Gold City. In place of this, is a cleaner, brighter, more self-confident (as opposed to just plain brash) inhabiting of a simpler arrangement. The distance on the scale between dissonance and consonance is much smaller and the ensemble moves together, in time, toward its harmonic resolution – the effect being not so much of a return to order and unity but an expanding and unfolding of other, larger possibilities. One of my secret vices is that I’m a sucker for big made-for-TV endings, and the kind that GVB puts on may be stacked to the stratosphere, but I’m not much of a mind to care in the experience of hearing it, because it leaves an impression, becomes a moment – and, as MNP is wont say, the moments are what make everything else worth it all.
For the fan of gospel music and a student of its success (and failure), a lot else goes on at a Gaither show between all these moments. While Ben Speer gives us our nightly dose of nostalgia or Jessy Dixon turkey walks his way through “Highway to Heaven” in a celestial white suit and candy-cane stripe tie, or them Gaithers sing their way through some embarassingly mushy headed lyrics that Bill and Gloria wrote to the tune of Finlandia (I’ll seek commitments that enrich the cosmos … ok … I made that up, but only a little), you’ll notice (as a way to pass the time) that Russ Taff’s main function seems to be holding up and waving around one of the new Gaither lights – these throwaway flashlights that Gaither says from the stage are meant to personalize the vast space of big arenas … the idea being, presumably, that hundreds of little bleating lights in the darkness give people a way of applauding in silence. I’m not sure about that, though they probably are a huge money maker. At any rate, I do know that I was putting together sentences that involved “Gaither Lights,” “Russ Taff,” and “sun don’t shine” after about the 30th time Taff put that holy-spirit look on his face and started ponderously waving his Gaither Light (as for Taff’s own performance, it really is the sign of a prematurely atrophied career when Ben Speer easily outdoes you).
More significantly, though, there’s just so many little details that get done right in these shows. The comedy is so deft, well timed, and perfectly placed. Gaither and his team use technology to sharpen their comedy skits and lighten their own load as comedians – using cut-aways on the strategically placed projection screens and flat panel monitors to develop some kind of visual joke, usually one that contrasts something Bill Gaither is doing on stage with something Rory the Sound Guy or Williams is doing on the video feed.
And at Thursday’s concert I noticed for the first time that the simulcast being fed to the monitors and screens around the arena are not just practical ways of letting people with bad seats see more of the event. They also give the show that “feel” of a Gaither Homecoming video even while you’re experiencing it live.
None of this is happenstance. Gaither has a staff of dozens these days managing all these little details and making it all seem natural and easy. But they’re only ensuring the show meets standards established by Gaither himself.
At one point early on in the show, some HVAC fans were roaring way up high on one side of the arena and the roaring was filling in the quiet space between phrases of a song, disrupting the balance between song and silence that is so crucial to the overall “feel” of music. The roaring is distractingly apparent three or four times in a row during one song … Gaither looks up at the ceiling and frowns … looks around for his road manager, and summons her to him. He whispers to her while pointing in the direction of the HVAC noise. A few minutes later, the roaring ceased, and Gaither smiled, as his Homecoming universe tipped back into balance.Email this Post