NQC 07: Thursday night
To begin with: three notes.
First, a shout out to dear MNP, who normally travels with me (or I with her) to NQC but who couldn’t make the sojourn this year. I’m lost without her (literally: I was half way to downtown this afternoon before I figured out how to get back to 264E), perpetually late, and lonesome for her insights and witticisms. Second, an account of the bloggers roundtable will have to wait. It will be all I can do to get these thoughts together and posted before I become even more incoherent than normal or the sun begins to rise. In the meantime, I’ll look for recaps from other participants to tide you over. Finally, if you’re new to this, the digest below is organized in three tiers. I write these things in the wee hours so they are quite unavoidably going to contain errors of commission and omission. Please help me out whenever and wherever you can. I’ll correct as soon as possible where needed or warranted.
THE BIG STUFF
The New and Drastically Improved Fan Awards: By the far the most striking thing about tonight was how dramatically upscaled, streamlined, and well-produced the Fan Awards were. The show stuck to a script, was organized around performances of Song of the Year Nominees, and had the polish and discipline of a broadcast awards show: the nominee summaries were packaged in slick videographic form and were quickly paced. The voices of god were exactly what you’d get at the Dove Awards or CMA. And not least of all, the SOY performances, which all used tracks (a mandate, I presume, from on high), started on cue and for the most part came into the house mix at the right levels. Finally, the audio-visual is much improved this year. Though the house mix tended toward the heavy side on the drums tonight, it’s much sharper and balanced than in recent years, and best of all the Freedom Hall house closed-circuit video monitors on the Sony big board – old, shoddy contraptions with for-crap resolution and more and more dead pixel boxes with each passing year – have been replaced by four larger, crisper rear-projection screens mounted nearer the seats (read: less neck-craning). This, combined with all the other changes, made for a much more pleasant event. Sing it with me: We’re movin’ on up … movin on up …
This kind of upscaling is not without its downsides: awards-show scripts are their own special brand of writerly insipidity and confected nonsense. Tonight, for instance, the teleprompter told co-host Janet Paschal to tell us that both baritones AND tenors are each that one special ingredient that gives the group its identity. Uhm, ok. And I never figured out why Tim Surret and Taranda Green were introduced as two people with a history of saying “the wrong thing at the right time.” And too, the more disciplined format loses spontaneity and the kind of intimacy and impulsiveness that’s key to many southern gospel fans’ connection with the music. On the other hand, that way of doing things in recent years was pretty much risibly amateurish and weighted far too heavily toward the goof ball and slapstick style of Tim Lovelace and stupid jokes about spikey hair and short ties.
The Awards themselves: three things of note.
1)There were exactly three female award winners (and Kim Hopper won two of those). I don’t think this is necessarily the fault of the new revamped categories. Or maybe it is. But the absence of women on stage accepting awards was conspicuous, and two different people (one woman, one man) commented to me without provocation about it separately. So at least three of us noticed.
2) Song of the Year: The Inspirations, “I have not forgotten.” You know, I’m reconciled to the schizophrenic tastes of sg fans (SOY: Inspirations … Group of the Year: Booths… figure that out). But tonight the disjunction was – believe it or not – more pronounced than I’ve ever experienced it. The Inspirations sang the song a few minutes before it won and honest to goodness, friends, I tried, … TRIED to find something good to say. I told myself I would NOT expect pitch perfection (or any approximate likeness) from them, that singing on the beat is perhaps an unnecessarily formalistic aspect of music performance that I over-value, that beginning and ending phrases together is not as important as you might think. And then we got to the end of the song. I swear to you, the Inspirations ended the song at least five times … tag after acappella tag, each more unstable and tuneless than the last. It really was almost too artless to be believed. Were they trying to sing badly as a way of demonstrating their “authenticity”? They got the crowd on its feet, though I know at least a few of us stood if only in hopes of hastening the end. But no matter. It sure felt like one of those peer-pressure ovations, where a few diehards stand up and make a loud and showy display of how moved they are by the song (which I’m sure they are) and/but in spiritual solidarity the rest of the place rises.
This as compared with the response when the Booths won group of the year, which was instantaneous and raw joy … a single explosive expression of collective will. I haven’t heard the Booths yet this year, but it’s easy to tell they’re having the kind of NQC week that the Perrys had a few years ago when “Calvary Answers for Me” and “Wish I Coulda Been there” were killing every night and Loren and Libbi were like twin engine jets of power and glory.
The Booths’ ascendancy is fun to watch. In the first place, I think it bears out what Mark Trammell noted toward the end of the evening tonight: that this is a moment of transition in gospel music from one generation to another. But more particularly, the Booths Group of the Year award is the yield on a not unrisky investment they started making with their decision a few years back to not follow the rest of the Homecoming artists who went with Gaither when he and the Vocal Band left NQC. Instead, the Booths wagered on staying and filling the NQC vacancy Gaither created. By cashing in at NQC on the capital they’d banked while on the Homecoming tour, the Booths were able to build a base among conventional sg fans. It paid off, not least of all because they have the music, the showmanship, and the rare ability to appeal to the bluest blue hair and the shortest short tie at the same time.
The last thing to say about song of the year is a question: is my memory serving me here? Am I right in thinking that NONE of the SOY nominees was a No. 1 song? The highest I can recall is “If it Takes a Valley” and “Strike up the Band’ going to No. 3, I think. But unless “I have Not Forgotten” went to No. 1 and … wait for it … I forgot (and that’s entirely possible), it’s a curious piece of trivia.
3. The producers conspicuously incorporated mention of songwriters’ names when each SOY performance was introduced, and the songwriters appeared to be purposively included in the awarding and acceptance of the SOY award as well. Holy cats, now that’s progress. What’s next? Mentioning producers on Album of the Year? Ok, maybe I’m ahead of myself, but still. To the average listener, this might not seem like a big deal, but as a gesture of good will and artistic parity in the industry, it’s pretty huge.
The Moment of the Night: Admittedly this was an average night musically at best. The Awards Show seems to take the wind out of the sails of what comes later. Almost all the groups did more casual sets and/or sang old standards or spent a lot of time talking or having the audience sing some hymn or another with thing. Time killers. But still, Charlotte Penhollow Ritchie was magnificent (and she didn’t even sing that much!). Earlier this year, when she and the Easters came to town with the Homecoming tour, I wrote this about her and the song:
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
Ditto all that tonight. Ritchie’s voices launches a lilting descant that floats luminously over the Easter’s voices. And in the acapella encore, the track sheered away, it’s unspeakably delightful to watch and listen to her create this graceful aria. If Jeff Easter hadn’t stepped all over things and called an audible – “let’s sing that line one more time … no no no, just one more time” and Sheri Easter and Ritchie did not seem at all prepared for this – we could have heard Ritchie take true flight on that final syllable of victory (which could have gone up a third above her usual note, if I’m hearing it rightly), unencumbered by tracks, no limit but the sky. As it was, the moment was merely glorious, if not quite divine, but the intimations of divinity were there, the kind of momentous flights of grace that make the trip to NQC worth it.
50th Anniversary Clips: To mark the occasion, vintage clips – tonight they were all from the Gospel Jubilee, of which I see Gaither owns the archive … figures – play periodically between sets. These are wonderful. There’s an old, old, OLD one of the Florida Boys and another of the Hinsons, all in matching polka dots, just absolutely blowing the doors off “Sea Walker.” Have these old Jubilee tapes been remastered and re-released at all?
BONUS STANDOUTS AND OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING
The Convention has a different feel this year … perhaps it’s the anniversary. At least I think it’s partly that. But there’s a certain sense of different or revised expectations, of slightly expanded horizons. I’m not talking about the bloggers roundtable. Though I guess that should be included, however low down. But things like the Bluegrass Awards, the Brooklyn Tab showcase, the Kings Heralds interludes (I don’t quite get them and the song choice tonight was a little strange … and out of tune, but no matter), the AV improvements (yeah yeah I know you shouldn’t count basic logistics but still) … I dunno. Maybe I’m off here, but it all seems to congeal in a subtle but discernible way.
I don’t want to make too much of this. Entrenched problems remain: too many mainstage acts are there for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to sing or sell music. The exhibit hall is an embarrassment of flea-marketeerism of the likes I have never seen. Jerry Goff is windier and sloppier than ever: tonight he introduced Legacy 5 as the Group of the Year! Make ‘em Welcome! (and I noted tonight when Brian Lester tried to get the crowd to acknowledge how great Goff was and how much we love him, he got golf claps at best). And a vast sea of indifference seems to have opened up in the continental drift that’s been alienating Gaither and the Rest of the World represented by NQC for a few years now. Unless I missed it, there isn’t even a Homecoming product booth in the exhibit hall and no real discernible evidence that Gaither even exists. None of these things is good. But given how inert and moribund things have been recently, it’s important to acknowledge progress at the margins.
I hope Paid In Full’s award for Horizon Group of the Year means they are now officially ineligible to be nominated ever again, because they’ve been up for it for quite a few years now. And on stage tonight, they noted they’ve been singing for 15.5 years! That’s some horizon indeed. For some groups that’s a sunset. Still, it was good to finally see them on the mainstage singing, even if they didn’t really rise to the occasion, I didn’t think (Bradley Littlejohn struggled to place his notes and keep the tail-end of his phrases under control). Too bad they won the award as soon as Jeff Crews, their inimitable tenor, left the group. He was a bankable talent for them, I always thought.
Carol Woodward: I wasn’t there, but on good authority I heard from different sources that she was part of a bluegrass trio with Tim Surrett and Karen Peck at the Bluegrass Awards show today and was really quite incredible. That makes sense, actually. Her straight head-tones are perfect for bluegrass.
BFA: I only heard “If it Takes a Valley” during the awards show and the last song of their regular set later in the evening, because they started way earlier than the schedule said and I was in the exhibit hall being accosted by unhappy readers (yes, the real picture of Avery is up here). So I can’t comment much on substance, but the showmanship and aesthetic is certainly there with them now. The addition of Jeremy Lile brings the group visually into balance on stage: size, age, fashion, demeanor. And they’re just so slick. Sometimes too much for my taste (and just by the by the kick drum was entirely too loud), but a lot of the right ingredients are there for a good deal more success from them. They have the class and charm to be the Cathedrals of their generation, in their own way, … maybe.
The Perrys: The short version is “better but still mending.” Nick Trammell is markedly improved since I heard them back in the spring, both in presence and in voice. He and Habedank are starting to develop a complementary sound and vocal simpatico together that matches their camaraderie on stage. That said, Trammell sings with a certain hesitancy at the beginnings of his lines that often undermines his tone placement. Several times tonight, Habedank would join Trammell halfway through Trammell’s verses for a wonderful little duet. But great as these are, they’re probably only exacerbating the problem because they give Trammell just enough vocal cover that he’s not forced to learn how to nail a sustained passage from beginning to end.
Habedank, meanwhile, is still channeling Angie Hoskins. On “He Will Hide Me Again,” his vocal improvisations were dazzling, architectural, monumental. He’s so confident (by rights) and comfortable on stage, it’s a pleasure to watch him. Except that most of the time he doesn’t sing an identifiable melody. Maybe this is vocal freelancing, as one commenter called it. It strikes me as the indiscipline of the super-talented who get by with some uncorrected bad habits because so much comes to them so naturally. But no matter. Later in the evening, he sang the first half of a verse of “Who am I” with the kind of careful attention to the melodic line that really showcased what he can and could do more of. But then out came his inner Angie. Adios melody. Of course, I don’t think many people care, at least not judging by the response, so one can’t be surprised this issue is going unremediated. They are a striking group on stage, full of charisma and great force. And I hope this new album, Look No Further, gets them back on the track they were traveling with Changed Forever and Life of Love, before the Goodmans project took them into the high weeds of homage and perhaps arrested their development of a more stable sound.
They performed a coupla numbers tonight from the new album. I’d like to hear more of the project before saying much about the songs, but the set tonight was strong. My only real complaint was the orchestration for “I Know it was the Blood,” which was so extraordinarily overproduced my ears were hurting by the end of it. I stopped counting at 12 instruments, in addition to strings, that I thought I could identity in the arrangement. Cowbell. Triangle. Sand blocks. You get the idea. Think Lari Goss’s precious arrangement of “This Ole House” for the Cats’ final album, with all those Aaron-Coplanized strings in the intro. And then multiply by a factor of 10. Showy but also bloodless, unfortunately. The Perrys sung fine, but there was a too-muchness to the song that was difficult to get past.
The LeFevre quartet: I debated whether this should go at the bottom of the Bonus standouts or top of the Grab-bag, mainly because they were a study of paradoxes tonight. On the one hand, they have improved admirably to my ear since their showcase last year. In the three high positions, their sound is rich and full and well-blended. Of particular note is the tenor, who in a rare reversal of conventional tenor wisdom, actually sounds better solo than he does in the mix. Which is only to say, he has a very pleasant and rich tone, mellifluous and open, one that stays full and clear without being shrill in higher registers. The bass, unfortunately, is the odd man out vocally. He seems to be trying to cover up for a lack of range by doing a lot of that belchy gravelly carrying-on in the back of his throat that inadvertently at moments leaves the impression of someone who listened to Lester Moran the Ole Roadhog himself and thought it was bonafide quality sangin. Kick er off, Wichitaw.
But the sound is solid. The song selection, on the other hand, not so much. “I’ve Got My Jesus up in glory and yes I love him so” was the “hook” of the opening song, which sounded way too much like “That’s Enough,” but without any of the inventiveness or originality. The centerpiece of the set was a slow tune, “I Bless Your Name,” full of sweeping emotional arcs in the arrangement but joined to a lyric that didn’t say much more than, … well, “I bless your name.” Similarly, revamping the old praise and worship chorus “There’s no God like Jehovah” went nowhere either. They’ve got the invaluable LeFevre name. The sound is firming up into something quite sustainable. But the biggest problem is the material, which in this set (one assumes they brought their best stuff) was musically weak and lyrically insubstantial.
THE GRAB BAG
Best new hair: Ricky Free’s rag mop. No, I’m serious.
Funniest Line: Nick Trammell, full deadpan, on accepting the horizon individual award: “Thanks to Tracy and Libbi for giving me an opportunity that my own father wouldn’t give me.”
Missing hook: Can someone tell me what exactly is the lyrical hook of the song “Hey Jonah?” Is that it? The only other even remotely viable candidate I could find was maybe “Jonah shoulda listened to the lord,” but only because it gets repeated all the time.
Kingdom Heirs in two parts. Part 1 – Billy Hodges. Someone said in a comment somewhere earlier in the week that he had improved, but tonight he spent the first half of the KH’s SOY performance trying (and failing) to find his tonal center. I feel for the guy. Part 2 – Arthur Rice. If you subtract the vocal showboating that has barnacled itself on to his voice in the years the KH have been docked at Dollywood, he’s arguably the most gifted lyrical interpreter singing lead today. Too often he leaves too little nuance or subtly to his renderings of lyrics for my taste – a habit that I assume comes from theater work and perhaps having to carry his colleagues frequently – but no matter: unmistakably the underlying skill is impeccably intact and delightful to experience.
Freedom Hall: it’s a grungy, grungy space whose aesthetics are ever more beggared by the new expansions going up to the south.
Did Rodney Griffin MEAN to tell the same anecdote about sitting in his office in Newport News dreaming of a career in gospel when he accepted both his baritone and songwriter awards? He seemed not to get why the crowd laughed when he launched in to the story a second time, and proceeded to tell it all over again.
Lots of sets built around slow songs tonight.
Lesters: Gosh, I want to love the Lesters. Not least of all because they’re back to being a four-part family group again, which for them means a certain sound that’s difficult to beat when it’s good. But they make it so hard to like them some times. Tonight, they picked three disjointed songs, ending with the tedious Bible Song. It got a good response, in part because the Ls sold the ending, but it was also partly another case of peer-pressure ovation. But no matter, the song is just kind of a non-starter for me: recite the books of the bible and synopsize what’s in each of them, reminding us that, “He is.” This strikes me as another case of “his name was John.” Lyrical solipsism. In addition, rather than letting the Lesters’ rich family harmonies shine, the Bible song fractures the vocals into little sound bites and keeps anything from taking off or landing solidly. Ugh. On top of that, one of the grandkids came on stage and literally shouted down the whole family on the ending of “Everybody Needs Jesus.” I’m all for kids on stage. Give them their five minutes to sing Jesus Woves Me. But don’t give them a hot mic and let them completely gut the only uptempo straightahead-gospel tune in your three-song set.
Ixnay on the spotlight mounted to the edge of the mainstage that blinds us nosebleeders when it comes on.
L5: I get why groups do Christmas songs when they’ve got a rack full of seasonable product rotting on the fine out there. But in addition to Jerry Goff mangling their walk-on, the Christmas tunes were just duds because unless you’re debuting the next “Mary Did You Know?” they’re the same old things that’ve done to death.
Reggie Saddler: you know at first, I admit, I didn’t really like the Saddler family. I mean, they’re very likable people, but Reggie seemed always to be trying too hard, and the rest of the family not enough. I don’t think that’s what was actually going on, but it often seemed that way (the children and the mother seem naturally more reserved and Reggie is probably certifiable ADD … ok, I’m making that up, but he is one seriously energetic dude … and too, I think, earlier on, they were probably a little uncertain of how to best connect with an NQC crowd). Lately, I’ve been coming round to all this, and tonight Reggie was just spectacular – a mini-clinic in fine entertainment: funny, creative, original, well played and sung, good timing, charisma, charm. Everything. He opened with some kind of lightning-speed variety show. Notionally it was his testimony about being a professional musician for Disney. But it was really just an excuse for him to wildly entertaining and spot-on caricatures of all kinds of styles and genres and popular musicians and the crowd loved it. It was marvelous, exactly what was needed at 1145. Then his wife and one of his daughters came on and sang a few songs (ornamentalists take note: these women know how to lay down and into a melody). More Reggie and Family next time, please.Email this Post