NQC 08: Thursday night
Welcome to another year of live-blogging the NQC. For the newcomers, what follows is a nightly digest I put together after each evening concert. It’s written late (as I begin to write this, it is 1221 on Friday morning; as I put the final edits on it, it’s
235 301), and it’s based on a transcription of notes scrawled hastily in the dark loftiness of the nosebleeds. So it’s bound to contain mistakes, inaccuracies, and other errors that I invite you to correct, whether you were in the hall with me or listening or watching at home. Differences of opinion are, of course, also welcome.
THE BIG STUFF
Taranda Greene: where has she been all our lives? Well, she’s been right here in front of our faces for quite some time, and her substantial gifts have not gone unnoticed. But tonight she hit a stride or found some new inner resources of confidence or assurance or something. Her performance generated the sort of feeling in me that beggars all but the most ridiculous hyperbole and banally overused adjectives: magisterial, magnificent, electrifying and palpably humane all at once. She opened the Greenes’ set with “Miracle in Me” and though the song inevitably evokes Kim Greene Hopper, Taranda Greene’s rendition was vastly superior to Kim’s, which isn’t to slight KGH (who is no shabby shakes) but to give you a sense of the scope and scale of what I’m trying to convey here. Her voice is unstrained at all registers, her pitches nearly perfectly poised, her vocals balanced, her tones placed with surpassing confidence, her harmonic work full of delightful little filigrees and textures. I could go on, but I’m starting to embarrass myself. She ended with “Oh Holy Night,” and I hear you groaning, but honestly, it was a show-stopper and -stealer. Gerald Wolfe really should just surrender the song to her now. More Taranda Greene, please.
Steve Ladd: Gold City did a surprise (at least unscheduled) stand just before the Patrick Henry Hughes appearance (which could have been a sentimental disaster but was actually quite well done, not least of all b/c of a professionally produced video that preceded the kid’s three songs … he does a knock out Ray Charles and made me actually enjoy Brooks and Dunn’s “Believe”). Everybody wants to talk about the new lead, Bruce, with the untypable last name, and indeed BT (as I will refer to him) has a strong, if often brittle voice – he could use some strategically placed vibrato to soften the texture of things, and a smile now and then would be a nice break from his unrelenting stank face. But all this overshadows the realer news: Steve Ladd’s emergence as a bonafide vocal artist, and not just a screaming banshee. He did a verse of “For the Sake of my Heart” that had whatever that quality is that reaches out and pulls you in no matter how far away you’re sitting. His upper registers are still too shrill for my taste but that shouldn’t overshadow his marked and persistent growth over the last few years. That sort of improvement is not the result of just doing your job long enough. It comes from hard work and careful, searching, often painful self-examination and study. There’s not enough of that in sg.
The Booths: the pace of their set was stagnated by poorly chosen songs, and the emotional intensity was slack for ¾ of the stand – the center loose, and disorganized – and even so, they hit a homerun, built almost entirely around “Look for Me,” with Roy Webb at the piano (as was the case last year). Michael Booth’s set up was interesting too; he offered perhaps the most cogent defense of sg blue hairs I’ve ever heard, emphasizing the wisdom of experience and judgment of age that heighten people’s emotional intelligence and spiritual sensitivity to the blandishments of the heart and the soul poured forth in gospel song … I’m paraphrasing of course, and he didn’t say anything new (plus his claim is arguably true at best), but it was an intriguing and decidedly erudite way to set up an old standard like “Look for Me.” Eventually of course this song will lose its luster for them. But for now it continues to work, the way “Oh Holy Night” used to for Greater Vision. And the fact that even singing ho-hum songs 90% of the time, they were still vocally captivating … well, that’s not nothing. And I’m clearly not alone in this. The schedule was backloaded so all the A-list talent was at the end. Legacy 5, Greenes, Talleys, Booths, and Greater Vision, in that order. The place retained about 75% of the audience from its peak (though the hall was never more than ¾ full all night) up until the Booths finished. At which point the place emptied out … while Greater Vision was coming on. Three years ago this would have been unheard of. Walking out on Gerald Wolfe? No way. Tonight, GV’s set, which was also turgidly paced and full of flaccid tunes, sounded like a benediction or maybe a postlude for all the folks heading for the exits (except for the ending of “I Know he Heard My Prayer,” which had an especially emotional hook after Wolfe dedicated it to Lari Goss in testament to Goss’s fight with cancer, but there was too much movement in the hall for the moment to take hold the way it might otherwise have, though just now I see an email from a friend of mine who called it “one of those magic nqc moments” so there you go). Anyway, methinks I know who should be favored to win favorite trio.
Event mojo: most of the insider types I talked to were still buzzing about the Bill Gaither/EHSSQ showcase in Freedom Hall earlier this afternoon. Guesstimates put attendance ca. 5,000-6,000. A couple of people thought the collective energy went down hill from there, and that the afternoon explosion of sg fame and star gazing may have sucked the wind out of the evening a little, as though after Gaither, everyone else is an also-ran (one person referred to a two-mile long line at Gaither’s booth, and I suspect he was only half-joking; another referred to BG holding court for several hours after). Still, the mood felt less jaundiced than last year, judging by the folks I talked to, and the feedback from my unscientific gut. Weekend ticket sales are up, possibly due to Gaither, possibly due to the Fan Awards’ moving to Saturday night, possibly due to the renovated exposition wing, where a lot of people seem to enjoy spending a lot of time (which might account for why, though I had to wait a long time to get in the door at 6 p.m.– and that never happens – the hall itself felt less full than the lines at the door suggested). Maybe I’m full of crap, and this is no different than any other year, but I do remember leaving Thursday night last year decidedly more downbeat. Mostly that’s probably owing to the lineup. There was less garbage in the mix tonight compared to last year, as I recall, and the talent was clustered so that you didn’t have unendurable stretches of mediocrity. A vast, vast improvement.
The Sound: no, not the group from
BONUS STANDOUTS AND OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING
Mark Trammell Trio: I almost wrote, “They had the unenviable job of following the Dixie Echoes,” but the crowd sat on their hands for most of the DEs set, then lavished love on MTT, for no musical reason that was apparent until the last song. Steve Hurst was at the piano, though that shouldn’t be mistaken for my having any more clue than I ever have what his role is in the group. A great deal of time in the set was devoted to a predictable and barely amusing set-up for what Trammell, in the role of the cantankerous old man who doesn’t get this new fangled music, called a “dumb song,” sung by tenor Eric Philips, who played the role of the rascally whippersnapper. The song was not dumb, but it wasn’t that special either. Just an off-the-rack uptempo tune that was notable mostly for how much Philips barks his lines and oversings his big notes. Hard to tell if he’s unsure of himself or in less control than he’d like to be of the higher power notes, but for whatever reasons he tends to aim sharp for full-voice notes in his upper register, and then settle down on the tone, which gives the impression he’s both going flat (though he often isn’t) and biting his notes unpleasantly. Or maybe he just compared poorly to W/Lesley Smith. At any rate, it was hard to believe that jokes about old white Baptist men (Trammell in this case) trying to learn to do dance (with the help, in this instance, of the Booths, who joined MTT and half the other groups on stage at some point in their set) are still so prevalent. I guess everybody wants to be EHSSQ now. Still, MTT should find a new schtick. I liked this one better when Gerald Wolfe and Jason Waldroup did their version of it. Indeed, though MTT got a big rise out of the crowd with their final anthem (strackstatic!), they still felt like a poor man’s Greater Vision.
Whisnants: You know, they don’t do much for me musically, but I find them charmingly tenacious for no other reason than they keep coming back. With most similar b-list groups who don’t go away but never really find a brand of their own, it’s annoying. With the Whisnants, I dunno … it’s like they’re that loveable scamp cousin who broke your toys and got you in trouble but you still looked forward to seeing. It’s not just that they try very hard, but that they do it in a way that’s mildly endearing. The biggest problem is, as it has always been for the Ws, their song selection. Their set tonight was built around “The Past is Promise,” a lyrically listless, melodically meandering song with a serious stylistic identity crisis. It clearly wants to be an anthem, but just as clearly never rises above a muddle between balladeering and inspo. This might not have been a dealbreaker if their voices worked better together. But as it is, Susan Whisnant’s voice is very sharp-edged, so it needs richer, warmer, softer voices to complement it. Instead, the other two vocalists also have sharp sounding voices, and so the group ends up sounding like a drawer full of knives jangling and jostling around in the back of a moving truck.
Arthur Rice: while he was knocking the top off “Forever Changed,” I scrawled in the margin, he really, really deserves a quartet of his caliber.
Talley Trio: I wish I could have promoted the Talleys to the Big Stuff, but it just wasn’t justified. I went down into the pit to hear them, in part because I continue to be baffled about the cold shoulder they consistently get from the audience. Yeah, they’re regularly pitchy, but when has that stopped a NQC crowd from lovin’ on an artist or group? I thought maybe if I got up close, I’d get a better angle on the question. They selected a strong slate of songs, but they were not in top form. From the pit, the crowd’s silence and unresponsiveness seemed far more devastating to me than similar responses have struck me from up in the nosebleeds, where the sheer enormity of the space tends to override finer shifts in mood during a song. What was clear tonight was the crowd was having none of it with the Talleys. They simply don’t connect. They closed their set with “Hallelujah, Praise the Lamb,” from the Talley Trio 1.0 days, with Lauren taking Kirk’s part. I suspect LT would say she didn’t have her best night vocally. She has a habit of holding out big notes in straight tones that go flat really easily, as straight tones are want to do. It also gives her voice a more calcified and strident feel than is actually the case (listen to her verses on “Broken Ones” or “That Name” … there’s the real Lauren Talley, vocally). Still, the song is a nostalgic hit whose memorable and evocative opening lines are exactly of the sort that usually meet with an eruption of applause (gospel audiences love to congratulate themselves for continuing to like certain songs). Not so, in this case. It was like the Talleys were calling bingo up there. What gives? Part of it may be cultural. Lauren Talley is decidedly not the kind of artist sg fans are used to seeing in the front-man position (the absence of a gender-neutral term here hints at the problem). And as she ages into her own, she’s pushing her audiences even further out of their comfort zone: tonight she was in a dazzling form-fitted sleeveless gown with perfectly blingy diamond costume jewelry (it was a fabulous ensemble). This sort of couture only highlights the fact that she carries herself without the demurrals and self-abasements that most sg females foreground in their public personae. I don’t think sg audiences necessarily dislike her (and btw, I should say I think she should continue to be whatever being herself means, audience discomfort be damned), but they may not know what to make of her, or the Talleys generally, and vocally the Talleys never seem quite to nail their sets in ways that would break audience’s ambivalent silence in the group’s favor. Then of course there’s the Kirk factor. Perhaps the group simply reminds audiences of an unpleasant sore spot in sg’s collective mind and imagination that most folks are unable or unwilling to gloss or get over. I may be wrong, or I may be right and still not have accounted for the coldness with which the Talleys are reliably met. But something is going on here.
THE GRAB BAG
Shameless line of the night: “I don’t care if I wrote it or not, but that’s a great song.” McCray Dove, offering an on-the-spot critique of himself as a songwriter. I would tell you the title of the song, but like everything else about it, the name is quite forgettable. Points for chutzpah though.
Time delay: I noted that it was 620 p.m. before we heard an upbeat song from the first act. Is it ever a good idea to open the first set of the night in a cavernous hall, where people are still filtering in, with a slow tune? “Bringing in the Sheaves” is uptempo for a reason.
Sister Tenor lives: Scott Fowler introduced Frank Seamans as the guy with the toughest job in the group, because (say it along with me now, if you can keep from puking) he has to look like a man and sing like a woman. I am not joking, but Fowler seemed to think he was. Otherwise L5’s set was serviceable but subdued. Glen Dustin completely blew his ending on “Going Home Day,” another little ditty that L5 can add to their collection, but Dustin looks quite studious in those wire-framed specs he’s sporting. I assume they’re holding back on the big stuff for their last appearance later in the weekend?
Primitives: evidently, in “primitive” music, no one ever sings songs paced above a slow walk.
Channeling BG: one of the
oddities innovations this year is to let some kind of (pseudo-)prominent figure have a mini-set in between big acts. These aren’t always or exactly soloists, though those are in the schedule too. For instance: John Pfieffer, separate from the Pfieffers, has a slot tomorrow night (joy!). Tonight, Ben Speer had a micro-set of his own and spent the entire time singing Bill Gaither songs. Not weird precisely, but it’s not like there aren’t a lot of … oh, I dunno. .. SPEER FAMILY songs he could have sung. At one point, he forced us to stand up so we could hear Dean Hopper sing “Family of God.” And MNP suspects that Jeff Stice, who played piano for this flash round, may not actually know “Something Beautiful.” Which makes me giggle.
Air bubbles: the mat covering the stage is a giant NQC logo, and the stage lights glare unflatteringly off it. Not a big deal, but the glare makes visible all these air bubbles under the plastic appliqué, and I imagine them making little flatulence noises every time someone walks on them … and that reminds me of working at Burger King in high school and having to force all those air bubbles out of the Whopper and BK Broiler promotional signs we’d affix to the glass. Thhppttthhht.Email this Post