NQC 08: Friday Songwriters Showcase
Some thoughts on Friday afternoon’s
Celebration of Phil Cross’s Ego Phil Cross’s Songs of a Lifetime songwriters showcase, in no particular order.
The sound sucked. Mikes weren’t on for most of the singers and speakers for the first few minutes, including Cross’s. Songs had to be restarted including the first one, the Booth’s unremarkable “Welcome to the Family” , and there was generally lots of dead, awkward silence … Cross was visibly pissed early on, and barked out “just turn all the mike’s on on the platform please … God please.” Later he regrets this outburst and lavishes praise on sound techs. The crowd, however, was not so forgiving. Folks in the mezzanine stage-right started heckling performers whose voices couldn’t be heard. Turns out, as we learned at intermission, there was a necessary dead zone in the house sound to accommodate the monitors for the FBC Atlanta choir seated stage-right in the general admission seats (the choir was really big), but no one bothered to tell the audience that until intermission and folks were clearly not in a mood to be understanding about the sound (evidently random ticket holders were walking up to the sound table and letting fly).
The event is thoroughly Gaitherized whether any of the organizers know it or not … the songwriters are the friends, there’s a choir, a band and a poor man’s Bill Gaither.
“Grace that is Greater Than all our Sin” may be the most medleyed song ever.
The FBC Atlanta choir and orchestra are huge and impressive. Why didn’t ALL sg artists use them for their songs? Well, we know why … most folks don’t want to pay or take the time to score their tracks for orchestra and rehearse them just for a three-minute set on a Friday showcase, but a few of the groups DID use the orchestra and choir (the Hoppers, GV for one song, a guy whose name was never announced) and it made the groups using tracks seem small and cheap and amateurish. The songs that used the live music weren’t perfect but they were palpably present in a way the canned music simply wasn’t and couldn’t be.
The avfl Twitter crowd already saw this but Ronnie Hinson said that he wrote “The Lighthouse” “in the bathroom in seven minutes on a piece of toilet paper.” Which is so real, so human, so funny and endearing and free of the contrivance of Cross’s “it takes a lifetime to write a song” unctuousness that it was hard not to love Hinson. It wasn’t just his bathroom line. His set-up for “Lighthouse” was deeply moving, about how as a kid he saw a neighbor drown in the ocean in
Mark Bishop needs to get a pianist who can, you know, play and stuff.
The crowd roared for “My Name is Lazarus.” Absolutely roared. Which was good because that way they couldn’t hear how subpar the singing was. Me to MNP: who all was off on that ending? MNP to me: Take your pick.
Cross consistently failed to introduce the songwriters before they spoke and/or sang, which is just ridiculous for a guy who claims to be the songwriter’s biggest champion. The single biggest reason songwriting isn’t acknowledged or supported the way it should be is a lack of face and name recognition for writers of hit songs so that fans began see and talk about writers as important parts of the creative process and musical experience. Leaving most of them nameless (if you didn’t already know who they were by sight, and I doubt most people did in all but a few high profile cases) was bad form and even poorer strategy. On top of that, many of the songs simply weren’t introduced by anyone – not a songwriter, not Cross, not the group. So it was difficult to discern why “His Life For Mine” received an introduction by its writer, Rebecca Peck, but L5 singing “I Have Been Changed” didn’t. It’s a decent song and was well received, but there was no clear explanation for its presence in Songs of A Lifetime. Here and throughout, there was next to no overarching narrative thread or connective tissue running through the concert – unless you count Cross’s penchant for self-indulgent monologues and repetition of stupid lines like “the nanner puddin’s coming at the end .. I’m saving the nanner pudding for the last ya’ll.” Aargh.
Almost as bad as forgetting to introduce them was Cross’s habit of treating the assembled songwriters on stage like a supporting cast for his monologues. This is nothing new if you’ve ever been to a Phil Cross songwriter’s showcase; he tries, as I wrote last year, very hard to make everything a special speertchul moment. Yesterday was particularly bad, though. At one point he commanded all the songwriters to stand while he stumbled through a tribute to Dottie Rambo. It’s not that she didn’t deserve it but that he seemed to be winging it, which gave his speech a certain sloppiness and meant the tribute sort was sort of rambling and disjointed. And in the end it all wound up really being about him, how HE called this lovely woman back in April and told her about HIS showcase and she said I’ll be there, I’ll be there, I wouldn’t miss it. Ok, so maybe he doesn’t do eulogies well. Fine. But then who did he choose to perform a tribute to gospel music’s most prolific and influential songwriter? JOHN PFIEFFER, with this untuneful horn, bleating and honking his way through “He Looked Beyond my Fault.”
As the day wore on it was increasingly clear that the only common thread woven through all this was Phil Cross himself. At the beginning he let us know that this was HIS idea and HE went to Charles Stanley and talked him into sending his choir and orchestra, and at intermission Cross hectored the crowd for not being grateful enough to the sound guys (!) and even had the audacity to shill for advance sales of a dvd of the event as a way to offset the expenses he himself incurred in producing the show. Pitch your product, but he wouldn’t have to make buying it an ethical obligation if the product itself were of higher quality.
On the stage, Cross’s ego and self-satisfaction seem to know no bounds, made all the more intolerable for the fact that he clearly thinks he’s comes across as “just folks” and this salt-of-the-earth guy who just happens to be a brilliant songwriter – at least in his own mind. Of course the average fan in the seats would probably be hardpressed to name anything he’s written besides “Champion of Love,” and even that was a co-write with his ex-wife. He also clearly fancies himself a keen judge of up-and-coming singer/songwriter talent, and several groups at yesterday’s showcase were obscure, unknown, or new regional acts. Not surprisingly, when he introduced them, it seemed more about him than them, bringing on several of these regional groups with some version of what amounted to “I found these yokels in the backwoods, cleaned ‘em up and gave them a ticket to Louisville … now gimme a handclap of praise for it!” Cross deserves props for supporting people lower down the food chain, but as evidence of Cross’s judge of talent, they were not convincing specimens. They were exactly what you’d expect out of regional singers and songwriters, which is not a knock on them – they’re just doing what regional groups do – just a glaring relflection on Cross’s bad judgment.
This songwriters showcase was expanded to 3.5 hours this year, and I don’t have a hard time believing people asked for more the way Cross said (over and over). But I wonder if this uneven raft of talent and higgedly piggedly group of writers is exactly what people had in mind (putting Scott Inman and Wayne Haun on the same songwriters showcase, for instance, is rather like sitting me next to Andrew Sullivan at a bloggers roundtable). Maybe what people really were asking for when they said more was better. This really could and should have been a solid 90-minute showcase of top-tier talent singing mostly first-rate songs from the top of the sg charts, for or with the song’s writers. As it turned out, there was far too much padding from regional groups and and too much unilluminating and self-aggrandizing chatter from our host. Less Phil Cross, please.Email this Post