CONCERT REVIEW: Booths, Talleys, Greater Vision
Date: Sunday, November 3
Location: Orlando, Florida
Setting: First Baptist Church, Orlando
Occasion: FBC-O Free Gospel Concert event
Average age guesstimate: 58
Opening act: mercifully, none, but while I killed time before the show, I found this wonderful note scrawled in child’s script inside the Praise! Our Songs and Hymns book in the book rack: “OZZIE: Where is my gameboy? If you don’t give it back, I will tell dad YOU brought it.”
Attendance: an usher guessed 2500-3000; it felt to me like less, but I’m notoriously bad at these things (for instance, before I talked to the usher, I would have guessed 800, so take all this for what it’s worth).
Cost: Free, with love offering, but I’d have gladly paid a flat ticket price if that would have kept the FBC-O staff sitting behind me in a sound booth from talking really really loudly through most of the first two sets – even with senior pastoral staff standing right there. Not classy. And another thing, while we’re on the topic of things you don’t get to do just because it’s a love-offering affair: syncopated clapping? NOT cool.
The lineup went this way: Booths, Talleys, Greater Vision, and obviously the point here was that GV was the headliner. But when Michael Booth joked that “we’re so glad the Talleys and Greater Vision could be here to close our program tonight,” it ended up – after all three sets were done – being a kind of deadpan prophecy. Musically, this was a Booth Brothers & Friends concert. From the start, the Booths nailed the first note of “His Grace is Sufficient,” the sound expertly mixed and fully balanced. After three nights of hearing one knobbed intro and botched pick up after another at NQC, first-class beginnings are sadly not something one can take for granted in gospel music. But this was not just a comment on how inexpertly most sound techs run shows these days. The point is that the Booths come out vocally confident, but not stridently or too loudly, as so many groups do in the first few bars while they try to find their notes.
The ensemble sound that the Booths have nearly perfected masterfully molds each phrase to the musical thought – the attack and release so finely calibrated and blended. It’s as if the lyrics dissolve into a finely knit fabric of feeling textured as much by the dynamics of their voices as by the harmonics. That is, how they sing is at least as important as what they’re singing. There’s energy here – a great deal of it, in fact – but it’s contained and held taut, restrained so that lines others would oversing manage to be for the Booths buoyantly subtle. The less impressionistic way of saying this might be that they encored “His Grace” acapella and got a bigger rise out of the place than most groups do with turnarounds twice as loud and half again as fast. I think that’s because such an understated approach gives the music a chance to breathe, to resonate with audiences accustomed to being shouted at and browbeaten into submission by evermore overpowering encores.
The insight the Booths seem to have made – and not just in their opening but throughout their set in general – is not new. The Martins were the most recent trio to popularize it and the Gaither Vocal Band deploys it as needed: namely, emphasizing musical textures and harmonic colorations over volume and dramatic expansiveness. But whereas the Martins had little else to fall back on other than their ability to wring seven different shades of supplication out of a harmonic suspension, the Booths have figured out how to make their sets cohere around this acoustical sound (and here’s the really brilliant part) even and especially when their music is at its trackiest. “Look for Me,” “Tears are a Language God Understands,” “Won’t that Be a Hallelujah Meeting,” and “Castles in the Sand” – especially “Castles in the Sand” – besides featuring Jim Brady a lot, these songs from the middle passage of the Booths’ set were held together by vocal arrangements that foregrounded the kind of harmonic and dynamic intricacy we expect most commonly from acoustical music: vivid and sentient, warmblooded and – in a word – felt. And yet only one song in their set (besides the first encore) was truly acoustical.
To hear what I mean, listen to the final “all” of “He Saw it All.” It’s there even on the recorded version, a little harmonic inflection that makes it sound as though three voices are moving in four different directions (though I suppose that could just be the track). Or “Crucified with Christ,” with which the Booths closed last night. Though Brady sings the song persuasively, Michael Booth seals the whole deal with one note in the final tag, a little augmented flourish that somehow manages to erase the sense of performance and artifice of the show and for a brief moment create what feels like an unmediated experience of the paradox at the heart of the song: living through dying in the transformative action of regenerative grace. I don’t necessarily think everyone (or anyone else) there would have put it that way, but then they were all too busy jumping up and beating their hands together, so I suppose in one way or another we were all more or less saying something similar.
The Booths are a tough act for anyone to follow, and the Talleys did what they could. Which is to say, the same basic set they’ve been doing for the last two years with a few modifications to account for their latest project: Lauren Talley & Her BackUp Singers Sing Some Songs. Seriously, Lauren Talley is a transfixing stage presence, and if she’d do in six or eight months whatever it took Kim Hopper the last decade to do to open up and widen her head tones and get them out of her sinuses (and here’s a good place to say that Kim Hopper’s voice on The Ride is resplendent), Lauren Talley could pretty much write her own ticket, I think. Songs like “That Name” from her solo project, “The Broken Ones” and “Orphans of God” (which were part of the sets final segment last night) really pack the kind of wallop that can launch a career.
But back on earth, the most effective single moment of the Talleys’ set was perhaps the simplest: Roger Talley’s pared down piano solo at the beginning of their forty minutes, which led into a super slick video montage identifying the group on the church’s jumbo-tron monitor overhead (FBC Orlando is more digitized and hot-wired than the space shuttle, I think). This digital introduction made Roger Talley’s labored introduction of each member a little redundant, but it shouldn’t go without saying that the Talleys do an excellent job of integrating live music (that is, Roger at the piano) into their sets and their tracks. We’ve been talking a lot lately about bands this and live music that, but realistically the kind of limited mixed modes the Talleys work in – using a few bars of piano at the beginning or piano-and-voices interlude – is a model that more groups could strive for to enliven otherwise digitally moribund music without breaking the bank.
Roger Talley talks too much, and that wouldn’t be a problem if Debra Talley didn’t talk too … and if Lauren Talley didn’t talk too much. But there’s just entirely too much talking, not least of all the big fat dead spot after the second song during which Roger and Debbie make predictable – though occasionally funny – jokes about twentysome years of marriage etc. This wouldn’t be so bad if much of the stuff they’re staging from their newest album didn’t have a kind of easy-listening feel to it. As it is, the smooth-jazz style of this music – see, for instance, the loungy “No One Ever Cared For Me” – had the cumulative effect of a sedative on the first half of their program.
The song selection for the last half of their set was strong, but it was effectively gutted by this unintentionally hilarious video segment projected overhead during “The Healing.” The clip looked like a recording of some small-time church-theater group dramatizing scenes from the song – the story of the woman touching the hem of Christ’s garment, a contemporary scene of a healing miracle in a hospital room.
It was the kind of thing that makes you embarrassed for A)The people doing the “acting”; B)The Talleys for thinking it was a good idea; and C)Yourself. Honestly. The wardrobe department seemed to be mostly old bath robes and mangy facial-hair prosthetics. “Jesus” was wearing what looked to be some kind of white canvas hoody with a vented coverlet. Needless to say, all this was both distracting and trivializing. The crowd’s reaction was underwhelming at best, so I don’t think I was alone here. Ditch the video.
Once again, I was disappointed that this crowd, like the NQC audience, didn’t seem to get “Orphans of God,” which is just a gobsmackingly good song and works well thematically with “The Broken Ones” to create an emphasis on the ordinary realities of religious living. But “Testify” woke everybody back up for ….
It was weird that the minister of music had GV come on while the love offering was being collected. And even weirder that Gerald Wolfe didn’t ease the awkwardness with some kind of humor. Is this normal, bringing a group on while the plate is being passed?
But no matter. Greater Vision would make a textbook study of product branding. It doesn’t matter that Jason Waldrup struggles to place pretty much every note of substance that comes his way throughout the night (his voice is beginning to consistently have the sound of someone who’s just vocally exhausted all the time). It doesn’t matter than when they sing “He’d a still been God,” that last word comes out variously as “Gad,” “Gawd,” and “Goad” from each guy. It doesn’t matter that like clockwork Gerald Wolfe pulls out the old red song book about halfway through and announces that they’re going to sing some old shape notes … because hardly any groups sing this style of music anymore … just the way nobody sang this style of music anymore when George and Glen and the Cats do-re-meed their way through “Oh Happy Day” 25 years ago (not coincidentally, Wolfe was playing keyboards for them then).
Well actually, on this last point (the matter of Wolfe’s personable stage manner and the way he manages to emanate a certain star quality and folksy charm) it DOES matter. Because this is important. These days Greater Vision musically seems primarily to be a pretext for Gerald Wolfe’s masterful emcee work. It’s not exactly inimitable, because as that redbook anecdote suggests, Wolfe has carefully learned and applied the lessons he received at the Younce School of Showmanship back in the day. But with the exception of a Vep Ellis hymn off GV’s hymns album (which served as a vivid reminder of what GV’s music could be like if it were more often invigorated by work from outside the Rodney Griffin Songbook), GV’s set musically never rose above competent. And yet they were the draw. No question about that.
I have some theories about why Wolfe is so captivating as an emcee, and soon I hope to inflict them upon you. But for now, it’s enough to say that people started getting up and leaving when Rodney Griffin took over to do the spiritual heavy lifting with “Faces.” I think that’s because the real high point of GV’s set was actually a hi-freakin-larious story-joke (in high George and Glen style) about Gerald and Rodney, a banana, a train ride in eastern Europe. To watch and listen to (and to watch everyone else watch and listen to) Gerald Wolfe tell a story like this is to witness a type of greatness in the vernacular arts that comes around a handful of times in a single genre every generation. It would not, I imagine, ever get old, just the way George Younce made every one of those old jokes he told about Glen Payne feel like the first time they’d ever been launched. And this is a good thing for Greater Vision, because “My Name Is Lazarus” and the material it exemplifies just doesn’t seem to be cutting it any more, at least not with the folks in Orlando.Email this Post