NQC 08: Saturday night
I will keep this brief, at least by my standards. Saturday night was something of an experiment insofar as the Fan Awards were moved from Thursday to here at the end of the week and though the Awards Show itself was nothing new, a Saturday slot for it definitely changed the feel and pace of the evening’s performances. To wit, I’m departing from my usual format and will just note some things I heard and saw, in no particular order, and let you make of them and the evening in general what you will.
THE FAN AWARDS, IN TWO PARTS
Part I: You might recall that last year, the Fan Awards show was vastly upscaled to look and feel and run much more like the Doves or other televised awards shows. This year, the show felt much more modest – whether downscaled or more intimate will probably be a matter of opinion, but it was much lower keyed, to the point that often if felt almost sleepy, the applause of the sort that’s heard on golf courses during the PGA. To its credit, the show moved quickly and was mostly free of the shenanigans and antics that had amateurized it for so many years before last year’s revamp. Maybe the fast-paced discipline of the show accounted for the energy level being down, I’m not sure. But except for the Booth Brothers, fans responded to artists who won won or performed with more or less polite applause. A newcomer who missed the title of the show wouldn’t have known most of these winners were fan favorites, judging by the fans’ tepid response on the whole.
Part II: It was, of course, the Booth Brothers’ night. They didn’t win every category where their names – whether individually or collectively – were on the ballot. But they came close to it. Many groups have won numerous awards before and last night the Hoppers, and/or mostly Kim Hopper, won multiple awards in addition to the Booths, but there are fan favorites and then there are fan favorites. And the Booths are clearly fan favorites. The energy level spiked conspicuously whenever they won, sang or were mentioned. I don’t remember this kind of reception since the Perrys were sweeping their categories a few years back. It’s nice to see. The noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the Hoppers’ wins, on the other hand, was curious. Assuming people who bother to travel to NQC are also committed enough to vote in the Fan Awards, you’d think they’d show more love for a group and its dominant personality if fans saw fit to repeatedly honor them (and yes, I have received your emails about the Mixed Group award being fixed because the Hoppers were tired of being bested by the Perrys, and I agree that there is a disconnect between the way the crowd responds to the Perrys and the Hoppers and the group which the fans designated as their favorites, but gospel audiences are a study in paradoxes and inexplicability, and absent any compelling evidence of fraud, this seems like a fairly unproductive path to go down). The bigger question is whether Fan Awards stay on Saturday night. A couple of folks I talked to liked the idea of making them an afternoon weekend showcase, which sounds good, except it leaves Saturday anchorless unless Gaither could be convinced to forego his own gig that night – and I wouldn’t bet it on it (The Gaither tour was in Canada last night, though I’ve heard from various sources that the energy level wasn’t much better there than in Louisville, so maybe everybody’s just a little tired right now).
Summary of the Marvin Norcrosse Award: Maurice Templeton has made a lot of money in sg and for this, we honor him. All Hail, MT. Perhaps I’m not fully appreciating the importance to gospel music of Templeton’s 9o-odd trips to
Perrys: Hard to watch their performance of “
Booth Brothers: It’s heartening to see and hear an acoustical song like “Look for Me” win Song of the Year and be the backbone of the Booths’ sweep of the awards show, and even more remarkable given the song’s age (it was first released in the late 70s). I’m not sure fans were necessarily using their choice to repudiate the overproduced style that’s come to dominant contemporary sg, but it’s not for nothing that fans chose a song staged at NQC at least with just piano and vocals and that even with a track still eschews the orchestral bigness of a song like, say, “Holy Shore.” And of course it doesn’t hurt that lyrically “Look for Me” was probably the strongest of the songs up for SOY. Decide for yourself how much of a comment that is on the state of gospel songwriting today. And what to make of the Booths’ ascendancy? One way to read it is the rise of a new or next generation of pace setting talent. I was talking to a friend of my parents’ who I ran into this weekend and he remarked that the last several years the convention has felt listless. So many of the old guard have died and the space they created went more or less unfilled by any clear heirs or benefactors in the fans eyes. Maybe the Booths are emerging as one of the dominant voices from the jostling and competition for prominence of place among the remaining A-listers, in ways that may realign things considerably. Certainly Michael Booth seemed to at least suggest as much when he mentioned the Couriers and Greater Vision as groups that had pioneered the path of the Booths’ success as a trio. Whether intentional or not, Greater Vision came off looking and sounding like an antique that’s been overtaken by a new, improved, and younger model.
Talley Trio: their best set of the weekend. They went acoustical early with “Too Much to Gain,” which was delightfully simple and suggested the direction in which their greatest potential and appeal may be. They closed out with “Orphans of God” and bridged quickly to “Testify” and the crowd got invested, responding warmly for once.
Scott Inman: His solo work in the verses of Triumphant’s Award Show performance was just really quite nice. Like a lot of male quartets in the bidness right now, Triumphant has a tendency to oversing as a group, which covers up a lot of their better singers’ best features individually, so it’s nice to get to hear a pleasant, warm voice like Inman’s uncovered and freed up from the calcifying effects of the ensemble.
L5: They did “I Have Been Changed” for the Awards show and it was by far the best three minutes they’ve had all weekend. The song grows on me the more I hear it live, and though I wish they had tagged it the way it’s recorded on their most recent live album, last night’s performance managed to remind us what they are capable of.
KPNR: They’re song selection left me cold, but Devin McGlamery is a pleasure to listen to. I assume he gets more face time of his own in their full concerts, but even in the harmonic mix, last night it was clear how much he continues to improve and how gifted and capable he is as a vocalist. There were so many nice little things he did harmonically that probably few people notice – grace-noting the II before landing on his final III note on the ending of “Four Days Late” for instance. But it’s the kind of work that rewards close inspection even or especially when you think nothing special is going on.
The Lowry Vocal Band: This was Mark Lowry’s joking name for his joint appearance with LordSong, but its apt, not because LordSong can’t sing in their own right (they can, as well or better than anything on the stage last night) but because Lowry makes music a function or a musical comment on the larger theme, ideas, and dramatic arc he’s spooling out in his comedic monologues. I’ve rhapsodized before about Lowry and Friends, about how impressive he is as a showman and how masterful LS is as a group of vocalists (I agree with DBM though about Stan Whitmire’s occasional “bass” work; less of this is more). You can go back and read my earlier thoughts on all this for the fuller version. Suffice it to say he’s the closest thing to a countercultural celebrity that there could be in a highly orthodox culture like southern gospel. I don’t know how closely most people really listen to the content and structure of his routines, but they work in the space between orthodox doctrine and unorthodox experience in a way that is as much a critique of standard issue pietism as it is a celebration of orthodoxy. “I’ve never learned anything about God on a good day,” he says, and most people hear in this a fairly typical restatement of old ideas about trials by fire etc. But listen and watch where this goes in Lowry’s mind and hands. Slowly he works toward the idea that the struggle to believe becomes a kind of working substitute for the thing itself. Lowry is a struggler (he doesn’t joke about all the crosses he has to bear for no reason) and in his comedy, striving after faithfulness, even and especially when it’s hardest to hold, is the best evidence of faith itself. Thus most of Lowry’s jokes work by exploiting the difference between what you’re supposed to feel and what actually ends up happening. “I need you [God] to make it real,” he sings at the end of one of these struggler/striver monologues. It’s a deeply affecting song lyrically and musically, sung masterfully and backed up deftly by Whitmire’s incomparable accompaniment, and its achievement is only deepened by the fact that at its core, it’s as much a comment on the degree to which religion has obscured – made unreal – religious experience itself as it is a plea for divine assistance. No need to ask for God to make it real, after all, if ordinary religious culture didn’t cut the individual off from original religious experience. And Lowry reinforces this idea with jokes that tweak the dogmatic tendency of contemporary Christianity: in heaven we’ll all be just like Jesus, Lowry says, reaching the center of the show, and just as the crowd is about to sigh in self-satisfaction (he may be kinda sassy but he knows what’s right), he adds, in full-on deadpan: “33 and Jewish.” Who or what, precisely, are we laughing at here? Oh, I think it’s funny, for sure. But just as it would be most certain professional death for most gospel performers to walk out on stage at the National Quartet Convention and just start talking for five minutes, or ten, sans music, so too would it be suicide professionally for most mere mortals to make a conservative Christian audience the punch line of Christian comedy, because the 33 and Jewish payoff only works if you tacitly acknowledge the illogical extension of the Biblical literalist worldview. Jerry Goff makes jokes about Christian culture and its foibles, of course, but those old sprinkling Methodists one-liners and in-one-accord puns are the equivalent of your Uncle Bob pointing at a button on your shirt and then twitting your nose when you look down … he kids because he loves. The gag reinforces the solidarity of family ties, just like Goff’s jokes remind us that though many members, one body. Lowry, on the other hand … his jokes don’t so much reinforce as deconstruct, while the music meditates on the deconstruction, consecrates its celebration of the struggle. Like all great comedy, it surreptitiously smuggles in a fairly substantive comment on contemporary mores, and though this would be deeply satisfying and gratifying to watch from any comic, it’s especially captivating coming from a Christian artist who understands how to inhabit the impressario role of master showman and bend conventional audiences to his very unconventional will. And there are just far too few of showmen of this caliber around anymore in gospel music. My only complaint with the set was the ending – a cotton candy confection of heaven hymns that for much of the time sounded like a cross between a Christmas cantata and polka music and concluded with “When We All Get to Heaven” in the style of Rent. More Broadway for Christians! you say, and perhaps, yes. But in this case, an oddly mechanical choice that had a distancing effect on Lowry’s presence.
The Kingsmen: Was there a clause in Harold Reed’s contract with the Florida Boys that required him to leave his voice with the group when he left? Oh my. He wasn’t the only problem with the KM’s set (Bryan Hutson’s nasality and harshness rivaled Billy Hodges and David Sutton for most unblendable voice this weekend), but he was maybe one of the worst. What a debacle. If they hadn’t put together a pick up band to take them out on an upbeat note, they might have just dissolved under the force of their own mediocrity.
The Pfeifers: They may be the most unlistenable act in gospel music. Honestly. Say what you (or I) will about a group like the Inspirations (and I’ve pretty much said it all, three or four times), you can’t walk – or even run – away from their sets without admitting that they go all-out, full tilt, doing everything they know how to elicit the desired response. It may sound horrendous most of the time, but if and when they know how to do better or different, you’ll hear it. With the Pfeifers on the other hand, you get the sense that this worn out show of theirs – the horns of praise and the phony baloney falsetto “opera” singing by the soprano, the hyperventilating patriotism – it’s all just a collection of set pieces that people mistake for a style or a brand simply because the group refuses to get better, go away, or at least get some new material. It’s not so much a question of whether they mean it (I’m sure they do). It’s that they’ve been doing these same bits and using the same moves for so long that their sets practically dismantle themselves. Oh here’s the part where he tells us about playing in bars, and being alcoholic and yup … now he’ll do “Amazing Grace” on the trumpet, or maybe it’s “He Looked Beyond My Fault,” but in any event, he’ll aim for the Doc Severeson note and miss it, badly, and repeatedly, and then the tall one will do that head-tone thing with her voice that sounds like something off the Carol Burnette Show. They’ve never had more to recommend them than the horn playing – and maybe the way they all sorta look like each other and so may have inadvertently appealed to the sentimental family types as a ful-on sibling act if you didn’t pay too close attention (only two of them are related, ftr). And the horn playing stopped being even remotely novel long, long ago (not to mention they are average horn players at best … I mean, you’d think he’d figure out that instead of trying to jump a full fifth to the high note in “He Looked Beyond my Fault,” he could run up to it so that if he overshot it or went flat, and he almost always does, he could play if off as an idiosyncratic riff or an improvisation instead of just having to eat the flubbed line). As it is and has been now for so long, it’s just a terribly unfunny literalization of the old axiom about tooting one’s own horn. I think I can understand what their initial appeal might have been however long ago it was that started appearing at NQC, but I’m still wondering about their return appearances. Since no one took me up on my offer to explain their continuing appeal (might it be that they don’t really have one?), I’m going to hazard a guess that Legacy 5’s patronage (the P’s appear at almost all L5 destination events) accounts for the security of their presence on the NQC mainstage.
Mark Trammell: There’s a longstanding tradition of good-natured ribbing that happens on stage between colleagues and peer performers. And lots of people make jokes about Michael Booth. His self-styled ADD persona invites it. But amidst the
Booth-a-thon Awards Show last night, Mark Trammell told a joke (or was it a “joke”?) about Michael Booth being good evidence why some animals eat their young, and that felt like it crossed a line of some sort, even for the alpha-male sucker-punch brand of comedy prevalent in the southern gospel boys club. He was smiling when he said it, sort of, but it looked like a ghoulish grin.
Technical difficulties: the mikes weren’t on for BFA when they stepped up to sing the opening song of the awards show and the track had to be restarted. The stationary microphones centerstage that artists use to announce and accept awards were never hot enough to make people clearly audible in the nosebleeds. Instruments weren’t on in the house mix for long stretches of several sets last night (this happened all weekend). And a Bill Gaither video that was supposed to introduce an artist presenter was soundless, so we stared at BG’s silent talking head for a while before the screens went dark and the show quite literally stopped. Dead. For a long while, at least on showbiz standard time. Finally Gerald Wolfe did a bad BG imitation, read some of the script Gaither would have been heard reading had the video worked properly, and things stumbled along. And this doesn’t even begin to address the persistent issues with the remote feeds on Solid Gospel and NQC tv. As DBM notes, “The fans who PAID a $59 fee to NQC directly [for NQC tv] should bombard the NQC office next week with demands for a partial refund at the bare minimum.” Last night, of course, the more the tech and sound crew screwed up, the more Jerry Goff, who was a mercifully minimal presence this year thanks to the joint-appearance transitions the NQC used to bring one group off and another on, insisted we thank them all with handclaps of praise for their hard work and excellence … blah blah blah. People clapped but at least a few were justifiable angry and heckled the sound crew during the awards show. Good for them. More people – especially artists – should follow suit. Because it doesn’t really matter whether you make a joyful (or any other kind of) noise, if no one hears it.Email this Post