NQC 07: Songwriters Showcase
The only showcase I attended last week was the songwriter’s thing that Phil Cross hosted, mostly because I’m always curious to hear about and see a little into the creative minds behind songs. So often the way a songwriter writes or imagines a song is simply nothing like the way it’s sung and though the showcase didn’t really highlight the writer’s sense of the song’s arrangement (except in one notable case I’ll discuss in a second), the writers’ introductions to their songs are still good opportunities to get a feel for the origins of the writerly impulse, which can often be quite different from the effect of the song in a given artist’s and arranger’s hands.
By far the most impressive moment of the showcase was Ricky Atkinson’s acoustical performance of “I Have Not Forgotten.” Quite simply, it was a revelation to hear him slow the tune down, vocally enrich the textures of the melody, and imbue it with a sense of beauty and nuance and pathos that you simply won’t hear in the Inspirations rendition. Atkinson’s piano-and-vocals approach was riveting. In the margins of my notes, I scrawled with the furious sloppiness of my excitement: “ok NOW I get why this is a No. 1 song!” Cross had the good sense to pass around a few mics to some of the assembled artists in the gallery and they quietly backed up Atkinson. But instead of the cartoonish Soggy Bottom Boy harmonies that the Inspirations give us, these were subtle, honest, plaintive intervals laid quietly down behind Atkinson’s voice, enriching and expanding the expressive contours. And instead of a hopelessly improvised, never-ending ending, Atkinson simply tagged the song and let it settle in, with a kind solemn forcefulness. It was remarkable. I would love to hear this song covered by a Janet Paschal or a Booth Brothers or a Talley Trio or Mark Lowry, with LordSong behind him.
Speaking of covers, Rodney Griffin’s performance of his “Voice I Could Not Resist” reminded me how badly that song cries out to be covered by Kim Hopper or Lauren Talley or someone like that. It’s such an unGriffinly song for Griffin to write, and though I don’t care for his poor-man’s-Glen-Payne approach to lyrical interpretation as a vocalist (lotsa of abruptly ended phrases and quick shifts between legato and staccato singing styles), it was a smart choice for him in this venue.
Scott Fowler was MIA when it came time for L5 to perform Diane Wilkinson’s “Strike up the Band.” It wasn’t exactly clear why Cross insisted that Wilkinson talk about the song right then, instead of waiting for Fowler to show up and have her take a turn later. So the result was a little awkward: L5 sans Fowler, plus McCray Dove struggling through an impromptu version of “Boundless Love,” one of Wilkinson’s long-ago hits. It wasn’t pretty or pleasant, keyed way too high for Frank Seamans, bless his heart, but everyone was a good sport about it and Tim Parton did a fine job keeping the train from completely derailing with a superb live accompaniment (save for keying it too high, of course).
It’s a good thing “Pray” is such a popular song, because the Doves’ rendition of it stunk. They weren’t done any favors by the house sound, which is always execrable in those large, flat exhibit hall rooms with crummy acoustics. But still, Jerry Martin was not in his finest form and the ensemble sounded like no one could hear their own parts.
After hearing the King’s Heralds in this showcase, I think I understand a little bit more of their appeal and their problem. They have a great ear for tight, structurally complex harmonies, which they can often nail pretty much spot on. But as a group they have very little rhythmic sense about them and seem particularly unable to reintegrate their voices gracefully into the harmonic ensemble after solo moments. They chose to close with “Champion of Love” and this brings us to the third new rule to emerge from NQC 07: Only ONE group gets to sing “COL” once per year, anywhere, ever, in Christian music. The GMA needs to set up a special high commission to track performances of this song and sanction any group or individual who violates the rule with a stiff fine and solitary confinement with only recordings of Archie Watkins’ part isolated on an endless loop, alternating with the Pfiefers’ “singing” O Holy Night (pictures of David Crowder can flash randomly on the cell wall for full sensorial punishment). I don’t know if the King’s Heralds thought this was a touching tribute to the showcase host or what, but just because this song kills every time isn’t a reason to use it. Screeching children and mentions of old glory get sg crowds on their feet too, but a stunt is a stunt is a stunt.
Funniest moment of the showcase: Mark Bishop beginning the story of how got into songwriting by saying, “back when I was working at an office Newport News ….” (see Thursday night’s round up if you don’t get the joke).
The Talley’s performance of Joel Lindsey’s “Orphans of God” sailed right over the heads of most of the audience (which is understandable to some extent b/c it’s a little more poppy than most sg audiences like), but Cross clearly had reserved it for last as a kind of capstone and summation of writing that exemplifies a certain ideal of the craft. This was an admirable choice. I know it’s pointless to expect mass audiences to “get” the difference between a “songwriter” like Jim Brady (I mean, shouldn’t we hear a bonafide hit written solely by him before we start nominating him for songwriter of the year based solely on a few successful co-writes and his day job with the Booths?) and a nonpareil writer like Lindsey, who has left an indelible imprint on Christian music – from CCM to inspo, sg and choral music – and chooses (like many of other talented writers … Sue C. Smith and Tony Wood and Marty Funderburk come to mind) to continue to write in sg because it’s where their writer’s heart is. So it was nice to see Cross reserve a special place of prominence for those writers who really do make musical weather with their careers.
As for the spirituality of the showcase mentioned numerous times in comments elsewhere, I musta missed that. I get the impression that Cross is kind of a deep-thoughts guy, and inevitably this sort of disposition can become a caricature of itself pretty quickly (think Jack Handy from SNL). But without diminishing Cross’s untiring support for every writer (his generosity of spirit and introduction was equally enthusiastic for everyone and he made a point to whip up support for everybody’s songs, to a fault really), Cross’s manner can come across as forced and unctuous when encountered over prolonged periods of time. Time and again at the writer’s showcase, I felt like he was trying to make a spayshul speerchul moment out of every song, whether the stuff of momentousness was there or not. Much of the music was either just ok or middlin’ to fair. Some of it was great (see Atkinson, Ricky; above). But you’d think an old hand as experienced as Cross in this bidnuss would know by now that there’s a natural dramatic arc to every performance and that the better part of showmanship is knowing how to read the flow of feeling of a room and intuit the shifting moods and emotions that coarse through a performance. Standing up and raising your hands in exalted praise during the FIRST HALF of the FIRST VERSE of a 3.5 minute song – which of course forces all the other writers and artists on stage to follow suit – is just awkward. Taking 10 minutes to tell a melodramatic, overwrought, lachrymose story about a disfigured in-law and then snatching away Gerald Crabb’s intro to his song because you put the showcase behind schedule, this kind of stuff is not endearing, and it erodes the very effect you’re aiming for. Perhaps it’s time for someone else to take a turn hosting the showcase for a change?Email this Post