NQC 07: Friday night
Tonight’s concerts were a strange mix of the mundane, the magnificent, and the mediocre all jumbled together. If, as I suggested last night, NQC feels different this year, it is equally true that NQC Friday and Saturday are no longer the climax days for the convention. I can remember when I first started attending 15 years or so ago, Friday night was – or seemed to be – the high point, when all the diehards were joined by the weekenders and groups really worked hard to bring to the new weekend arrivals a special experience. Friday was the Exhibit Halls killer day. No longer. The booths in the exhibit hall were half empty or more last night and the performances from the stage often had a tired feel to them. A lot of groups seem to see the Fan Awards as the unofficial end of NQC. Maybe those need to be moved to Friday?
THE BIG STUFF
Tonight was the Mark Lowry Show, with some concerts from some other people before and after. Seriously. Lowry and LordSong came on about halfway through the evening schedule and created the most extraordinary 25 minutes of musical entertainment I’ve ever seen at NQC. To call it a “set” in the sense of a program of songs or musical choices beggars the seamlessness of Lowry’s performance, the command and dexterity of his stage presence, and the deeply impressive way story, song, and spirituality were merged into a single captivating experiential unit.
This was the first time I’d seen the new arrangement with the Ruppe women and Michael Lord singing with Lowry, and at first the group as a whole very much stages like MARK LOWRY … and his back-up singers. Now, LS makes for pretty amazing bgvs. But it was a little strange initially to see the way LS’s identity has been almost entirely submerged beneath Lowry’s character and command of the stage. For instance, LS just stood in the center of the stage – all four of them – watching stolidly as Lowry did a few minutes of comedy near the opening and remained standing until Lowry called a song and they sprang into action. Kind of awkward.
But once that next song started, spectacular things started happening and I forgot to care one way or another whose name was what or why and instead just sat slack jawed in awe. Stan Whitmire (one of my favorite pianists, who’s freelanced for several groups this week) kicks off “Oh Happy Day” – no track, praise glory, and it is by far the most technically flawless and musically astounding song of the evening. The acoustical energy was enormous, made all the more powerful by the simple, gimmick-free style: just voices and piano soaring aloft, enveloping everything around them in their transformative force.
I think the crowd was a little unsure of how to take all this at first – the audience clearly was trying to respond throughout “Oh Happy Day,” either with rhythmic clapping or smatterings of spontaneous applause that never quite took hold – but they never seemed sure of the right reaction – and I don’t really blame them. Compared to the largely ho-hum sets that had come before and combined with the (for NQC) unorthodox performance style that Lowry was modeling (image a Homecoming concert crossed with prime-time network television special), the audience could have maybe used a bit more guidance early on from Uncle Mark signaling it’s ok to fall hopelessly in love with his backup singers too.
But that’s a minor criticism. Lowry’s was the best paced, sung, and staged – most thoughtfully constructed and smartly executed – set of the night. “Out of Your Hands” followed “Oh Happy Day,” followed closely by “What You Want,” followed uinterruptedly by a long stretch of Lowry monologue – a virtuoso hybrid of comedy, reflective contemplations on religious living, snappy one-liners, and what I can only describe as post-modern Christian comedic critique of the Bible: Jokes about virgin births (that at times got pretty racy, and not just for an NQC crowd), jokes about how God has no standards (he’ll use anybody, you know), how awful Mary and Joseph were as parents (they lost their son for four days and didn’t notice until they were half-way home etc) and on and on. Not only is all this very very funny: it’s humor that proves sg audiences are much smarter than sister tenors cracks and Bapticostal one liners that pass for comedic relief in gospel music.
Running through all Lowry’s comedy is an acknowledgment that the Bible can seem distant and remote , even a little strange, when read literally through the prism of contemporary life and mores (“I sure would like to have known what Jesus was like as a teenager and young adult … what music did he listen to, how long was his hair, did he have a girlfriend … but nothing … nothing in the bible about him from 13 to 30 … COME ON, PEOPLE … keep a journal or something, this is the son of man here!”). And no matter what their official position on biblical inerrancy, this approach resonates widely with the NQC audience. If you listen to the kinds of laughter Lowry generates, it’s qualitatively different – more authentic and diaphragmatic, less perfunctory and predictable – than the kind that Jerry Goff’s “two Baptists and Methodists are on a cruise ship” stories or the slapstick stuff that so many groups resort to for laughs (the only person whose humor even comes close to Lowry’s in originality and effect is Michael Booth’s, but even then Lowry is in his own class of comics). And woven into Lowry’s comedy is a thread of concern for the basic human experience that searches for personal meaning and purpose within a larger religious framework. Lowry works patiently, nearly perfectly, with unparalleled sense of timing and tone, so that when he moves from music, to monologue, to comedy, to a few verses of a wonderful song I can’t recall hearing before, “Come to Jesus,” it all seems like a single organic unit of artistic expression, like a multimedia work of art from a single voice. Halfway through “Mary did you know” – Lowry segueing to this song: “I’d like to sing a medley of my hit” – LordSong was reintegrated into the show, helping to put on a gobsmackingly good arrangement of the song, made all the more pointed (as much of the set was) by the absence of a tracks (I only heard a track on one song). By the end of things, I was speechless and wishing that NQC would have given Lowry 3 hours instead of 25 minutes.
People all the time want to know is southern gospel dead, is southern gospel dying. And if by that question you mean are male quartets in matching suits singing I-IV-V-I-II-V-I standards and trying to re-create the classic style – if this is what you mean when you ask if southern gospel is dead, I’m afraid that that music died on the table ages ago (given the chance, as they were for the first time this year, to select their single favorite group across all styles and configurations of southern gospel, the SN Fans chose the Booth Brothers – a trio).
In place of this hidebound style is a set of hybrid approaches and techniques that, at its best (in, say, Mark Lowry’s hands and LS’s voices), manages both to capture the spiritual vitality and intimacy that southern gospel is known for and reinvigorate those artistic conventions with newfound relevance and urgency, freeing the music to be newly meaningful instead of narrowly constrained by a tradition that was only ever as successful to begin with as it was able to insist on the creative authority of the musician to pick and choose the best of what was said and sung in adjacent genres, leave the rest, and in the process fashion a music that spoke to people in a particular moment about the soul’s search for grace and salvation, in terms that make sense for the way we live now. I’ve suggested elsewhere that in our time this might best be understood as post-gospel, and after tonight I’m convinced Mark Lowry and LS are living, breathing embodiments of the post-gospel at pretty near perfection.
Gold City: Hands down the best quartet – and perhaps the best group of male singers – to perform in the last two days. To begin with, their song selection was smart, moving from “Get Up, Get Ready,” through “After Awhile,” “Alone in the Garden,” an old-style song with wonderful contrapuntal echoes that manages to showcase the tight ensemble and the individual strengths of each voice. Most notably, perhaps, the tenor, Steve Ladd, has dramatically improved since his debut with the group a few years back. He still doesn’t have (nor will he ever) a sonorous, rich open tone, but he’s always in tune now and his tones are well-placed without being overly shrill. Meanwhile, Aaron McCune’s bass work is really a study in control and tastefulness: unlike so many basses I’ve heard at NQC this year, McCune focuses on placing his notes roundly and pleasantly at all registers, rather than blowing out the subwoofer or overpowering the ensemble or just being flashily low for its own sake. And unlike so many other groups who walk on at 1130 and try to talk a tired audience into liking their music, GC kept the talking to a minimum and just sang.
The Talleys: I wish they’d use more live music and back down the stacks a bit, but their intonation and musicality are first-rate. Increasingly, the Talley Trio is becoming a vehicle for Lauren Talley, who more and more looks and acts like her own star. She seems steadily progressing toward her own solo career and I’ve got to think with the right direction she could enjoy some measure of success in Christian music more widely. She took the lead singing what has been perhaps the best new song of the convention that I’ve heard: “The Broken Ones” (anybody know who wrote it?). Contrasting with so much lyrically derivative and conceptually flaccid junk that’s being passed off as new music, “The Broken Ones” is descriptively vibrant and tells a strong, engaging story in a musically compelling way. My only complaint about the song – and what kept it from rivaling “Oh Happy Day” as Song of the Night – is the ending, which is too anticlimactic and muted to match the emotional force that the song builds toward. As it is, the song just sort of wanders off instead of making a final, declarative statement.
The Hoppers: The Hoppers are trying very very hard to live up to the historical greatness they seem to be convinced they have achieved, and while I’m not sure it’s humanly possible to fill the shoes created by the Hoppers’ own PR, the set was slickly produced and often deeply pleasing. Mostly this has to do with Kim Hopper, who is a certifiable gospel diva. She looks extraordinary these days on stage, positively irradiated with her own magnificence. And though I wish she’d lay off the diphthongs and stop chewing the ends off her phrases for effect, her voice has never been better. Tonight’s set opened with a video intro – and the Hoppers relied on a video accompaniment through much of their set – about the making of “The Ride.” The idea was clever – promulgate a sense of the song as destined for greatness from the moment Ronnie Hinson, the writer, stumbled his way through it in a pitch to the Hoppers, which is where the video begins (Btw, note to Hopper video editors: yellow on yellow text was unreadable on the monitors). Still, it’s an unconvincing sell, to my mind. The song is good, but not great. That shouldn’t stop the Hoppers from singing it, but it probably should give them pause when making overblown claims about its status in the gospel music songbook of greatest hits. Points for creative thinking, though.
A four-piece string quartet joined the Hoppers on stage, a classy touch. And when the quartet played “Grace that is Greater” and the arena sang along, it was one of the most unique moments I can recall. “Grace will Always Be Greater,” which followed the hymn singing, naturally, was the set’s highpoint, but the Hoppers relied too much on old tricks – namely, singing “Jerusalem” and closing with a few rounds of “Shoutin’ Time” – to sustain the energy that the new song created. Mainly, I suspect this has to do with the video accompaniment. I get the point, I think, of using videos with songs, but what I don’t get is using videos that simply show the group singing a song in the past to an audience somewhere else while the group is singing that very same song live right in front of you. I don’t get it. Why would we want to watch the Hoppers sing along with themselves and sing in perfect tandem with the Hoppers on the video, thus gutting any sense of spontaneity and improvisation? This pervasive feeling of an over-programmed set (the Hoppers are certainly not the only culprits here) was born out at the end of the set, when the producers asked them to turn around “Shoutin’ Time” (because, you know, we haven’t really got used to the song yet) but … lo! “I’d like to,” Dean Hopper said, “but the computer is already unplugged.” Unplugged indeed. Like so many groups, the Hoppers act is a slave to technology, at the expense of the human. Which is to say, the Hoppers could also use a bit more humor. With all the emphasis on their outsized place in the pantheon of gospel music families – the Hoppers Heritage Tour, the Hoppers singing in Jerusalem, the Hoppers singing in Canada, the Hoppers singing with a string quartet – there was not enough room for the Hoppers as human beings to make an appearance.
BONUS STANDOUTS AND OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING
I’m afraid there’s not much Bonus Standing Out to talk about but some B-list moments include:
The Kingsmen: why oh why do groups whose strong suit is decidedly not acapella vocalizing open with an acappella number when anyone could tell you they’d stink the place up with it? Which they did. And yet here are the Kingsmen, leading with their weakest side, shrill and sloppy. Harold Reed was regularly flat and excessively tinny (at least more so than I remember with the Florida Boys; in fact, when he went back to sing with FB’s later, he was in much better form, which suggests that he may still be adjusting to his new gig with the KM and/or that the FB’s may have keyed their stuff a few steps lower than the KM, but I didn’t think to check this out for sure). Meanwhile, Ray Reese missed his lines – repeatedly, on the big ending. Things got on track about half-way through the set and the crowd got in on the act with “Saints will Rise,” much safer territory for the KM. And I gotta say it was fun to watch Bryan Hutson call encores and tags on the fly as the crowd got more and more into it. With so few groups using live bands these days, you just don’t get to see artists genuinely construct a made-from-scratch live experience in the moment the way the KM can thanks to their band. I appreciate that.
Dino: Judging by the crowd’s rowdy ovation for him, I suspect I’m alone here. But that’s never stopped me. So here goes: I know that Roger Bennett and Dino worked out an agreement before Bennett’s death whereby Dino got the DVD rights to last year’s Parade of Pianos/Pianorama/Piano Parade performance (Dino used all three names to describe the same event tonight). But Dino seems to think this makes him a bonafide gospel music artist and fan favorite. I don’t know, maybe he is, but I do know his TBN meets Vegas via Branson act is jarring and cringe-inducing (“I was telling my wife, you know my wife, Cheryl, you’ve probably seen her on television…”). And his outsized manner – the rhinestones and theatrical flourishes of the hands and arms – is that much harder to take when it takes so much of his attention that he can’t even play his lines well. He conspicuously dropped several notes in the opening measure of his solo, and nevermind the fact that this “solo” was really more of a big cheesy orchestral track with some piano licks interspersed here and there. Please. This is one of those NQC innovations that I could do without. Bennett was a shrewd bidness man but his style couldn’t have more different than (and, to my mind, superior to) Dino’s. I don’t usually get territorial about this kind of thing, but I hope Dino’s invitation will get lost in the mail next year, after calmer, cooler, less sparkly and bedazzled heads prevail.
Phil Cross and Poets Voices: they got one of several lackluster introductions from the voice of god (voice of god also rushed the Kingdom Heirs on tonight and Steve French testily insisted on a do-over, which was understandable but seemed a little silly, the house lights going back down and everybody acting like we didn’t just see them get stranded centerstage with their mics in their hands and no music to sing to ). And their set got better toward the middle when they brought out “I am Redeemed,” which the crowd responded to enthusiastically. But in general this group puzzles me a little. Year after year they persevere but they never have settled into an identity that they can capitalize on. All male trios have the formidable challenge in sg of not being Greater Vision or the Booth Brothers. And in PV’s case, with only competent vocals (which doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of more, only that their material doesn’t require more than competency of them) and too often lyrically forgettable music (“Why” and “Dear God” for instance), it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to remember them for once they walk off the stage. The peppy song “Center of the Father’s Will” suggests a style they could productively mine and use as a foundation for their sound, but nothing like a coherent musical profile ever takes shape. They need more songs like “Center” and “I am Redeemed,” and less reliance on Phil Cross’s name to do the heavy lifting for them. Cross spent three long minutes near the end of the set reminding everyone that he wrote “Champion of Love” and clearly leading the crowd to believe that would be their closer. And just as he had people salivating for it, he begged off .. not enough time, no no no … I can’t really, and besides that song is for Gerald Wolfe and Legacy Five, … a song for others, not me. Oh, come on, Phil. Either sing the song or don’t bring it up. But stop drawing on that long-ago account. This is a cut-throat bidness and if you’re going to bank your group’s reputation on your fame as a writer, it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sorta game.
The NQC tribute: I’ll be honest, I thought that for 30 minutes worth of precious real estate from the evening’s concerts, the tribute was pretty weak. A lot of legendary figures and songs, a lot of sentimentality and ceremony – complete with a candlelight performance of a made-to-order song about carrying the torch to the next generation (note to NQC producers: if you’re going to use candles on stage, turn down the footlights so the idea of a torch shining out in the night can have its full visual effect) – but a bunch of thin-soup musically. The audience didn’t seem that moved either. Jerry Goff forced us to get on our feet and commanded us to applaud to express our commitment to NQC, but this kind of stuntery is self-discrediting. The video of Glenn Payne’s death bed phone call was riveting, of course. And it was great to see some of the old timers, but the torch passing ceremonial stuff felt phony (the made-for-order song is the kind of material whose debut is its “premiere and death,” as an old music professor I knew used to say). A better way to pay tribute to the past and pledge yourself to the future is stage solid, well-rehearsed music, not dabble in nostalgia.
Florida Boys: I wish I coulda heard their set with Gene McDonald earlier in the week. That was evidently their artistic night. Tonight was their “have fun and be funny” night. They succeeded. Les Beasley is hilarious when he’s on, and there’s so much goodwill surrounding the FB’s right now, it was hard for them not to hit this one out of the park. Buddy Liles needed to lay off the subwoofer booster, which created an overpowering roar when he got out of his comfort zone. But that’s minor stuff. It was great to see him on stage again, and the group was entertaining and self-deprecating, a perfect way to be endearing.
THE GRAB BAG
Synthetic: In this era of big orchestral arrangements from eastern European for-hire symphonies, the cheesy synthesizer strings that the McKameys and the Kingdom Heirs use sound preposterous. My nephew called, and he wants his Casio keyboard back.
Greater Vision: Yup, Wolfe did “O Holy Night Again.” The thrill is gone for me. I still maintain that his vocal ability, which is unrivaled (if also, I’ll admit, a bit uhm, how do you say, affected), makes this something else or more than just another Christmas song, but enough is enough. Isn’t there a Bible verse about perishing for lack of a renewed vision? At least that’s what I jotted in the margin of my notes when GV was on.
Palmetto State: Bryan Elliot, their pianist, has grown up, calmed down, and evened out a lot. Burman Porter was muddy and out of focus at his low end, and the tenor was screechy above the staff, but the middle ranges were decent. Unfortunately their material is just horrendously unremarkable. I can’t recall a single hook or lyric or tune that stands out. But on the other hand, Kerry Beatty’s new look makes him a dead ringer for Roy Pauley.
Mike Speck Trio: The man’s a force to be reckoned with in the choral music world (though I gather even that typically reliable sector of the market is getting eaten into by P&W music). And his choral work makes a lot of people happy. But it’s never been clear how from this premise it follows that he and Speck Trio are mainstage quality material? Tonight, alas, they earned their place on the C-list. Not only did the singing range from dodgy to amateurish, but Faye Speck spent a good five minutes trying to convince us that they were going to close with one of the songs from one of their choral books (something we don’t usually do) but this had nothing – nothing – to do with the fact that that’s their livelihood. Honestly. But on the other hand, Speck may well be the first artist to make a hot-flash joke about menopause from the stage. I will say, Speck did a flawless job recovering from a miscued track at the beginning of their set; indeed, this acoustical stuff (with Stan Whitmire accompanying) was their strongest material.
Why oh why do the people next to me think it’s ok to sing along with their favorite songs when the artist hasn’t invited us to join them?
I miss the Crabb Family.
Oddest lyric of the night: “A paramount God with a paramount love for me.” Huh? This is pure songwriting by thesaurus.
Hope’s Call: They tried very hard to bring a show big enough for an NQC crowd … and in some ways, maybe they were a bit outsized? At any rate, they opened with an acapella “How Great Thou Art” that was strangely arranged, climaxing prematurely and then oddly recoiling back into decrescendo right as the arrangement was whipping up excitement from the audience. And though I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: I don’t get opening acappalla and then immediately singing with a stacked track of vocals so full it sounds like the Brooklyn Tab choir is backing you up. It’s not that this is dishonest (everybody does it, unfortunately), but that it’s not done more gracefully.
Compassion International: either give us the video pitch or force us to sit through the live hard sell, but don’t use both. And just once I wish the artists who push these charities so hard would tell the crowd whether or not they get a cut for every child signed up through their efforts.Email this Post