NQC 08: Friday night
Tonight’s lineup looked much stronger on paper than it sounded in person. Gaither and EHSSQ brought the crowds, as planned, but it wasn’t entirely clear that we got we thought we were paying for. More on that momentarily. It wasn’t just the centerpiece acts, though. As you’ll see from the fat cluster of comments in the middle tier section below, tonight was mostly middling to fair. Here we go (buyer beware: I do tend to get crankier as I go, which I have not attempted to censor because the fact of my crankiness in large part speaks to the quality of tonight’s performances and in part because it’s 2:59 a.m. and I don’t have the energy to rewrite four pages of my own prose).
THE BIG STUFF
The Isaacs, or, The Sonya Isaacs Spectacular: The Isaacs were the first top-flight talent to sing after the opening formalities and they were warmly received. I could tell you about the song “Barnabas,” which was, like so many things the Isaacs do, a study in live musicianship. I could tell you about “Love Lifted Me” and what an astounding thing it is to see Sonya Isaacs walk up to a microphone and sing from note-one with a preternatural assurance of her voice’s relationship with the room and its audience. But what I really want to talk about is “It is Well.” Just two fiddles and a voice – Sonya’s again, backed up by her siblings. The room seemed to still as she started singing, and perhaps I wasn’t alone in feeling perched on the leading edge of all her next notes. At one point the instruments fell silent and the bgvs stopped and it was just her and her voice filtering an old song through this wonderful vocal instrument. She managed give the impression that you might not really know what’s about to happen next with the song or how it would end, despite our ages-old familiarity with “It is Well.” I Twittered about this and said she redefined the song, but what I really meant was that listening to her was like hearing and watching an impressionistic work of art come into being. There were a few touchy moments when, were this a lesser talent, I might have been inclined to think she wouldn’t be able to stick the landing. But in this case, the uncertainties were infused, not with the sense of a mistake (as when an artist heads down some path of creative possibility in the live moment but finds her own artistic lights dim and herself suddenly in the dark), but with a sort of vertigo that comes from a master talent rushing headlong into the full force of her own exquisite ability to make live music – really create it – and trusting her wits and instincts to see her and her audience through.
Janet Paschal: One of my most favorite moments tonight wasn’t anything that happened on stage but a small media event Janet Paschal held to preview and promote her new cd of JP classics and the companion book drawn from her journals and reflections on life and gospel music that she generated over the last several years of illness and recuperation. Paschal is the definition of charm and grace, and she positively glowed with charisma – equal parts humility and self-possession, a professional at ease as a performer and yet not too hardened to appreciate the attention. Anyway, she played a few cuts from the new album and in a few places she’d sing along, or try to goad one of the radio guys in the front row of tables to help her out. Katy Peach, who sang background vocals on the new project, came up and sang with Paschal for a bit and dear readers I swooned like a deacon’s wife watching Doug Anderson swivel his hips. Let us set aside for the moment the travesty of Peach’s languishing vocal career (the only real casualty of the TKMcRae meltdown) and remark that she has a voice unrivaled in gospel music, maybe – and yes, I dare to overstate – maybe just all of Christian music. So don’t say I never say anything nice. Paschal’s mainstage set was also among the two finest moments of the night in the big hall. In general it was a delight to watch a seasoned soloist comfortably in command of a room that large and crowded. Paschal didn’t strain against the restlessness that filled the room when her set started (the Booth Brothers had just finished up and people were making for the refreshment stand). Instead she worked patiently and deftly, turning the crowd’s unfocused attention back to her slowly over the course two tunes that built in intensity and volume. The real emotional center of the set was Paschal, Sheri Easter and the divine Charlotte Ritchie singing “It Won’t Rain Always,” accompanied only by Kevin Williams on the acoustic guitar. Ritchie sings a first-soprano harmony that floats like gossamer above the lower voices and sounds perfectly weightless even as it possesses enormous intensity and urgency. Gaither got involved of course – Gaither’s hand was all over this evening’s performances by his Homecoming friends – and before Paschal et al turned the tune around, Gaither had the audience turn on these little flashlights he had had handed out at the door. I’m usually the one groaning loudly when these stunts get pulled, but as those beautifully blended voices’ took up the chorus again, I looked around and saw arrayed before me what appeared for a moment to be a sea of stars on a dark night, and in the center of that sky a clear glowing sun beaming beauty and brightness … the voices fulfilling the song’s promise that “the sun is gonna shine, in its own good time …” even, it seems, at night and indoors.
Ernie Haase and Signature Sound: I won’t say it was the best set of the night, but it’s in the A-section tonight for a couple of reasons. First, their approach may not have been impeccable, but was very smart. And second, just on sheer apples to apples comparisons, they outsang and outperformed the lackluster Vocal Band. SSQ started acoustically – Wayne Haun was at the piano (more to come on that) – with “Since Jesus Passed By.” The style distinctly contrasted with the going image of EHSSQ dancing and gyrating and slip sliding their way across the stage. That was to come, but by starting so modestly (and singing well without a big stack) they tactfully anticipated and rebutted many of the skepticisms surrounding them – namely, doubts about the group’s over-reliance on choreography and the musical equivalent of body glitter to get the job done. Once they had established their bonafides, the cheese started. Imagine the worst caricatures of EHSSQ, and that was “Let’s All go Back,” and the crowd did not warm to it. The group immediately pulled back, again, as if to anticipate the audience’s impatience with their flamboyance (or maybe the audience was eager to have their worst fears confirmed, since that would justify a lot of the nastiness aimed at EHSSQ). “Reason Enough,” a new song in the style of “Lovest Thou Me,” felt like the second act of a courtship, as though the group was trying to pull the audience in close after having risked alienating them, but really there was never much doubt how this would all end. Then came “Oh What a Savior,” and the relationship was consummated. The crowd almost audibly ached to explode in a fit of rapture and nostalgia, which meant it didn’t matter that EH struggled to place his pitches and get or keep his breath through the whole song. The set ended with “Get Away Jordan” but by that point the deal was sealed. However it happened, the audience seemed primed to welcome EHSSQ back, and think what you will of the group’s approach or style, they staged a tactically brilliant set tonight for an audience they have no immediate need to cultivate. And there’s simply too much mediocrity in gospel music right now not to acknowledge EHSSQ’s discipline and drive as showmen.
Wayne Haun: There are, I realize, a lot of fine keyboard players in gospel music right now. But this is the first time I’ve got hear and see Haun with EHSSQ and his is particular type of giftedness that deserves a few words. Most pianists in sg, even the good ones, overplay about 90% of the time. With all the band tracks most groups rely on, it’s simply self-indulgent for pianists to act like they’re carrying the group instrumentally the way pianists of old had to do. And besides, there are only a handful of pianists who can actually do that – Stan Whitmire, of course, Tim Parton, Gerald Wolfe. Haun is another breed entirely: a pianist who comes to the keyboard not with the mind and imagination of a player, but of a producer, arranger, and composer. The result is a deft, careful elegance that is as efficient (in wasting no energy playing rhythm or blocking chords that the track is providing) as it is effective (in finding the space between phrases or musical thoughts). Haun’s piano provides fills and runs and a lightness of touch that can in just a few key strokes make the difference between a set feeling canned and making canned music feel momentarily alive.
BONUS STANDOUTS AND OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING
Perrys: The Perrys sang a solid set built around “I Rest My Case” and closed with “I Wish I Coulda Been There,” which is impossible not to like, even or especially because the song’s rapid fire lyrics will probably always invite a kind of impressionist – and often incomprehensible – interpretation by lead singers (added bonus: hardly anyone, including the Perrys, seems to know exactly all the words, so that obnoxious woman behind me could not for once sing along with the songs being sung on stage). Joseph Habedank and Nick Trammel have both vastly improved. Habedank has figured out how to leave his mark on lines and songs without oversinging them (he’s got this neat little thing he may have picked up right out of the Loren Harris playbook where he sings a leading tone or pickup note just a half beat or so before the ensemble comes in, so that he positions himself in the leading-man role vocally without stomping all over everyone’s lines like he once tended to do). And Trammell is far less wooden, sounds a bit more like his father at that age (a good thing), and seems more relaxed, if not terribly demonstrative (again, not necessarily a bad thing). The thing that kept the P’s set out the A-list? A sophomoric video that began during “The Potter Knows the Clay” and continued on through the end of the set. First of all, videos like this (GVB used one too, though of vastly superior production quality) assume that the jumbo-screen monitors are just a kind of luxury and that no one really pays that much attention to them, but up in the rafters we rely on them a great deal to see more than just blurs and outlines of events on stage. So not only did these videos deprive half the audience or more a clear picture of the stage, the videos were also poorly conceived, even more poorly produced, and included not just now-standard issue scenes from the Pageant of Mel Gibson, but also during “Potter,” icky images of a clay-wet hand molding a lumpy half-shaped pot. This is not a pretty process, and undercuts the pleasantness of the music, just as the clip-art .gif animation of flames consuming the words “Potter knows the clay” trivializes the seriousness of the song. Don’t artists have advisers or friends to tell them that something like this is a really bad idea?
The Inspirations: Watching the crowd’s failure to respond as warmly as they usually do the Inspirations tonight, I realized something that I can’t believe has taken me this long to figure out. The response they typically enjoy from the crowd is born along on the enthusiasm of probably no more than a couple hundred true believers who start clapping and shouting and carrying on – as they did tonight— until their neighbors slowly start standing up and clapping too, whether out of shame, guilt, or a generic sense of Christian solidarity. Some of that solidarity clapping happened tonight, but not nearly as much as usual, and the overall the response for the I’s was polite at best. For the first time I felt kind of sorry for the Inspirations – Archie Watkins stood there with his head toward the heavens, arms out (as he always does) telling us over and over again that he has not forgotten, and the heavens might not have forgotten either, but they were silent tonight and so was the crowd, comparatively. Without the ambient enthusiasm they enjoy, their set sounded like a parody worthy of “A Mighty Wind” or like amateurs who have been duped into believing they’re the real deal and ready for primetime. It goes without saying that the Inspirations are difficult to listen to, but this was also almost difficult to watch.
Easters: Here’s the thing about the Easters. At this point in their career, they are almost entirely personality driven to an extent and in a way that almost no other group is. Jeff and Sheri are not and never will be franchise singers (the daughter who sings Charlotte Ritchie’s old part now may have some promise, but she badly needs voice lessons if she’s going to hold down that position), and without a voice of Ritchie’s caliber or an independent touring schedule to force them to forge a stylistic identity of their own aside from Gaither, it’s not clear to me that the Easters will ever be effective for more than 15-20 minute micro-concerts in the Homecoming tradition that leave people feeling good (“Yeehaw, ya’ll!”). There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but it’s hard to imagine professional musicians staying at it this long if that’s all they want to accomplish.
Hoppers: overproduced, stratospherically stacked, and hurting for material. A friend of mine thinks that maybe the rise of Taranda Greene is forcing Kim Greene Hopper to take it up a notch, but it wasn’t obvious tonight that that involves more than a lot of dramatic flourishes and hair swishing. I came away from tonight feeling like the Hoppers are in the 10th year of a farewell tour that musically amounts to using their time on stage to polish a case of trophies from the past.
Booth Brothers: If all you want to know is the bottom line on their set, then I can say it was much weaker than last night. You can now skip to the next section. But there’s a slightly longer version to this for those who want to indulge me. And that is: in live performance, the group’s collective success rises and falls almost entirely on Michael Booth’s showmanship. As I noted last night, they can sing a raft full of ho-hum tunes and still come out on top because all Booth needs is a few minutes to hook the audience and turn that focused attention onto a well-chosen closer like “Look For Me” and the deal is sealed. So when tonight’s set began unevenly with a screechy “He Saw it All” I figured they’d pull it out eventually. Booth took command of the set with one of his charming, goofball monologues that deftly included Bill and Gloria Gaither (sitting in the pit), in a way that was deferential but not subservient in the least. It was like in addressing them personally and getting lots of laughs from a joke about one of their songs that came at his, Booth’s, expense, he was staking out some turf for himself… saying, “Hey I know you’re here, and I respect you, but I’m not afraid of you” Everything proceeded according to plan through the middle of “Secret Place,” at which point Booth started struggling to place pitch after pitch, until the music stopped altogether and he wandered strangely off on into the high weeds of a rubato, accapella tag. He almost completely lost his way – he ended up at least a full step lower than he started and his voice completely cracked at one point, and not from tears or emotion (this was the kind of uncertain moment in a set that, in contrast to the uncertainty in Sonya Isaac’s solo work, bespeaks real trouble ahead that the performer is not equipped to manage fully). Meanwhile, it wasn’t entirely clear Ronnie Booth and Jim Brady knew what was going on. Ronnie Booth hustled up his cue for the “Haven of Rest” track to start almost before Michael stopped singing “Secret Place,” and “Haven” helped rescue the set from going under entirely, but the disjointed ending to “Secret Place” was a reminder not just of how perilous it is to invest so much of a set, a sound, and an image into one guy (this is old news), but how one of Michael Booth’s greatest assets – his frenetic youthful energy – can also one of his greatest weaknesses on stage.
Greater Vision: I won’t waste my time telling you about the set, since with a few variations this was basically a repeat of their first set of the week, in which Wolfe pretended to surprise Jacob Kitson by calling “Little is Much” yadda yadda yadda. And yawn. Listening to Kitson this week, I’ve become more and more convinced – stay with me on this, ok? – that he may not be a tenor singer at all. Instead, I have a sneaking suspicion that he may be a pretty fine lead singer who for whatever reason is pursuing a career as a tenor singer. Below, say, a D, his voice is warm and rich and full of color and feeling and depth and expressive range. I noticed it especially tonight on the verse of “Little is Much,” which was full of Kitson the solid lead singer, up until the word “seem,” when he has to ascend above his comfort zone vocally. Maybe he’ll loosen up a bit with time and get some help exporting the qualities of middle-range to this upper registers. Let’s hope anyway. Because I don’t get the impression “Little is Much” is going anywhere any time soon.
BFA: if you like the hard driving style that they share with the Kingdom Heirs and Triumphant, you will have loved their set tonight. I was underwhelmed. They were out of tune much of the time and the song selection was uninspired, though not – judging by the crowd’s reaction to “Long as I got King Jesus” – uninspiring. Still, they seem adrift stylistically. The set lacked focus, lurching from “Jesus Will Pick You Up” (which is just “King Jesus” by another name), to the reliable but threadbare “For God So Loved” and then back to “King Jesus.” Like I said, the crowd loved it, but hot tea can still be weak.
Gaither Vocal Band: They deftly exploited the opening that EHSSQ left them, but their set never rose above the pedestrian and was typified by “Jesus and John Wayne,” a big fat zero of a song. Guy Penrod chewed gum laconically through the whole set, and though gum-chewing vocalists are not new, the image of his head cocked off to one side chomping unfocusedly had a way of capturing the (lack of) energy the group brought. Put another way: the set was a kind of microcosm of the new cd, Lovin’ Life, from which most of the tunes were drawn: prettily sung and daintily coiffed but musically vapid and artistically vacuous (and that, btw, will constitute my full review of this infinitely forgettable album). At first I thought maybe they were holding back, aiming more for détente and goodwill after a few years of rough relations between Gaither and NQC, but then the set dragged on and on, and Guy Penrod’s big closer, “Sinner Saved By Grace,” came and went and though it was clearly meant to be show-stopper, it just sort of stopped. And I started to get the impression that GVB brought everything they had, and it just wasn’t all that much anymore. At least, they certainly didn’t have command of the hall from floor to rafters the way EHSSQ did. I guess the inside baseball types might argue that Gaither was letting his protégé Haase have the spotlight in this the Homecoming tour’s pseudo-triumphant return to Freedom Hall (the lines to see Gaither were extraordinary long). But I’ve never been convinced that Haase needs Gaither any less than Gaither needs Haase at this point in Gaither’s career. The well seems to be running dry back home in
Legacy 5: They got stuck with a crummy slot – not only at the end of the night but two stands after the Gaither show, which what most people appeared to have come for. It was a tough crowd, not least of all because there was not much of a crowd there, and the few thousand souls who remained were dispersed all over the vast space (plus, there was an unfortunate incident involved a man who ran on to the stage a started dancing with L5 and hand to be ushered off by security, only to rush the stage two more times before being escorted out of the hall … this all took at least two songs to play out and it was, needless to say, very distracting). There was some enthusiasm from the crowd for L5 at times, but somehow a clutch of three or four fans standing up and clapping vigorously in the mezzanine section while the rest of place puts itself to bed almost feels worse than no response at all. There was probably little L5 could have done to change ant of this, so it’s probably unfair to fault them for putting droopy songs at the heart of their set. But no matter how pleasant Tim Parton’s acoustical rendition of “God is Good” may be, it is not the right tune for 11:35 at Freedom Hall on a Friday night. In general, L5 seems stuck in their own private temperate zone emotionally, some kind of zen or self-satisfaction or … something, I’m not sure … but whatever it is it comes across as languidness and has a distancing effect on their ability to connect with audiences. They don’t sing badly, but neither do they sing outstandingly and with nothing (like a Fowler-Howard comedy act) to help bridge the gap between what their music might accomplish if performed more expertly and their audience on the other side of the stage, these sets of theirs seem like variations on the same failure to launch.
The Sound: Better tonight, though still many rough patches. It was my understanding that Gaither brought in his own sound crew tonight (and the sound was pretty clean, if not beyond reproach, in the house mix for the Gaither and EHSSQ sets), and clearly he brought his own tv crew. There were at least three more cameras at work tonight than last night.
THE GRAB BAG
Just for the record: MNP recommends that some charity auction off an hour with Stan Whitmire – for piano lessons, of course.
Compassion:: Next year, instead of another torturous 15-minute self-congratulatory homily from Clarke Beasley extolling the virtues of
the Beasley family for adopting Rosita in Mexico City sponsoring a child through Compassion International, I recommend they simply put a check off box on all ticket purchases that asks people to donate a dollar to ensure there are exactly no Compassion International pitches during NQC.
GMC: Perhaps one reason NQC switched from using the INSP channel to record and broadcast the convention to GMC (which is a longer topic for another day): the GMC head honcho, Charlie Humbard (yes, THAT Humbard, as he did not tire of telling and retelling us) doesn’t give a much better sales pitch than Beasley. There were many gems, but I’ll pick one: GMC grew faster in the last year than the NFL Network, which is the kind of stat that sounds impressive but probably is completely misleading, the way the tiny little churches I grew up in would boast about how they gave more money per capita to the Foreign Mission Board than the biggest church in the association (translation: we got outspent 10 to 1 but we prefer our way of describing it).
Mark Bishop: He sang “He Never Sleeps” from his new album to close out his set and the more I hear the song, the more I like it. Bishop sang poorly. But that song deserves more attention in its own right and could serve a lot of artists far beyond southern gospel quite well if they were inclined to give it a look and listen. Someone commented in an earlier discussion of Bishop that his songs are sometimes reminiscent of James Taylor and I think that’s especially true of “He Never Sleeps,” built around lilting rhythms and deceptively simple melodies that can turn surreptitiously haunting or evocative within the space of a single phrase or word.
Bleg: Somebody, please, … anybody, explain to me the fact of the Pfieffers’ endurance as mainstage performers (and no, “act of god,” “test of faith” and “sign of the endtimes” are NOT options).Email this Post