Concert Review: DBQ, KPNR, Perrys, BFA
Date: Friday, January 2
Average age guesstimate: 61
Occasion: Bill Bailey event, part of a package of concerts for snowbirds that Bailey puts on with these groups in
Opening act: Bill Bailey. Who else? Artists must just hate this … Bailey pitches his neverending combos of cut-rate compilation discs until the crowd bum-rushes his table in the lobby to snatch up the bargains before a single act sings a solitary song on stage. So the audience goes into the concert with less money to spend on artists’ product at intermission and on the way out the door. It’s ruthlessly smart.
Attendance: ca 300
Cost: $14 advance; $16 at the door.
THE DOVE BROTHERS opened the evening with two or three nondescript mid-tempo songs – stylistically homeless tunes with metaphorically sloppy lyrics (i.e. “call him up and you will see God’s love” - one assumes the writer did not have a video phone in mind here) and band tracks that weren’t loud enough to keep the room full of sound between beats. Had the audience received the group more warmly, this might not have felt so awkward and uncomfortable, like watching someone repeatedly extend his hand in greeting to people who simply stand there with their arms resolutely behind their backs. Jerry Kelso used just about every gag, trick, and gimmick in the book (you know the one: “Vaudeville for Gospel Pianists”) to get some kind of response out of the crowd, but still the DBQ got no love for most of their set. True, Kelso’s schtick does drift into a generic kind of unctuousness pretty quickly (he’s somewhere between Steve Hurst and Andrew Ishee, with some Happy Goodman hands thrown in for good measure), but it couldn’t have helped that the piano was virtually inaudible throughout the DBQ’s set, which made Kelso look like a mime much of the time, or that more than half the audience indicated they were seeing DBQ for the first time when McCray Dove asked.
I didn’t stay for the lightning round after intermission when each group did two more songs, so maybe the sound situation improved later. But the technical difficulties were more symptomatic than causative, I think. Tonight, DBQ’s main set included a workmanlike rendition of “I Can Pray” and of course the familiar, frantic finale with “Get Away Jordan.” It is emblematic of the DBQ’s fortunes in general that even though they were responsible for initially repopularizing the latter song in recent years as a vehicle for the closest thing to dancing in contemporary gospel concerts, their version now feels like a copy, thanks to EHSSQ, rather than the original (or perhaps, the original copy, depending on how much you think latter-day renditions of “Get Away” owe to the classic quartets of old). Like the Inspirations, the DBQ give the impression of offering audiences just about everything they have and know how to do, every night. And such earnestness is undeniably valiant, but it can also be difficult to watch, in the way it’s painful to witness scrappy, undaunted true believers give something their best over and over and still come up short.
KPNR’s set was, as Betty Butterfield would say, typical … just typical. There was a kind of collective swoon when Karen Peck stepped out from behind the curtain, as though a minor deity had materialized before us. I’m no longer surprised to find myself aswoon right along with everyone else … KP has a natural charisma that induces a kind of musical amnesia: just for a moment, in the glow of her gleaming glamor, you forget all those other times she’s walked out on stage just like this, and how she’s smiled and you’ve swooned and she’s smiled again and you’ve swooned anew, only to be jilted by mediocre music that leaves you wishing you knew how to quit her. It’s not so much perfection you find yourself wanting, but a level of professionalism to match the enormous sense of artistic and expressive possibility suggested by her natural giftedness. Tonight’s set opened with “Whispered Prayer,” a song against which I hold an admittedly unfair grudge ever since I listened to it with headphones on in bed one night and thought for a second I was in a bad Christian version of “The Sixth Sense” when all those voices at the end start whispering anguished prayers in surround sound. Spooky.
Back at the concert, there was way too much bass in the mix but otherwise the song was going ok … until one of the people fiddling with a laptop at the soundboard mistakenly cued up the beginning of another track – some loud upbeat number with banjos and kick drums that stepped all over the emotional center of “Whispered Prayer.” It wasn’t exactly downhill from there. The crowd loved “Four Days Late,” naturally. “Get Up and Walk With Jesus” was a splendid vehicle for Devin McGlamery (he also threaded some super finely woven notes into the ending of “Four Days”). And at one point Peck stepped forward and just started singing an old hymn by herself and, my god, it was enrapturing, a reminder of how rare it is to get to hear a voice – in any genre, Christian or otherwise – that can hold a room spellbound like that. She sings this way all the time, of course, but most of the time it’s in service of songs like “I Want to Thank You,” a wearying laundry list of sentimentalized types from the contemporary evangelical imagination that the singer wants to thank for their faithful witness – the childless couple, the little old godly lady, the avuncular evangelist – set to a score that spends a great deal of energy leading us up to an emotional pitch where most gospel crowds would rightfully expect to be made an honest audience of by an upward modulation. But this song simply backs off and walks away. Jilted again. Sigh.
KPNR just received another Grammy nomination, and insofar as KP can sing circles around most pop divas on the top 40 and every one of the Jonas Brothers, give her a Grammy nomination every year, I say (plus McGlamery has made-for-tv hair … there’s that too). But comparing KPNR’s set to, for instance, the Perrys’, who came on next, the not-so-secret curmudgeon in me marvels that a group like KPNR - rapidly becoming a monument to its own unrealized potential – is repeatedly celebrated as the best of southern gospel.
THE PERRYS: There was a noticeable excitement in the audience about the Perrys’ arrival on stage, and for good reason. The Perrys have perfected being celebrities and just-folks simultaneously, in a way that few gospel groups can manage. It has something to do with how they interact on stage … the three male vocalists often relate to one another during songs with none of the roughhousing hijinks that most men in gospel music rely on (the Perrys are not above all this, mind you, it’s just reserved for Tracey Stuffle and whoever happens to be sitting at the keyboard). Instead, they sing honestly with and to one another, often exchanging knowing looks that seem to be full of a deep appreciation for this music, this moment, and their meaning.
This is of course a key element of showmanship – the ability to give each audience a seemingly unique performance of old material night after night. Yet to watch Joseph Habedank touch Nick Trammel lightly on the arm and then swivel slowly toward him, smiling generously through the harmony of a duet or the male trio at the center of “I Rest My Case,” which dominated the Perrys’ set, it was as if we as an audience had been made privy to something extraordinarily private and personal, like the baring of one soul to another in song. Collectively, they seemed to be creating the object of their own awe, and ours. Meanwhile, Libbi Perry Stuffle stands commandingly in the center of all this, both apart from it and integral to it, a voice of authority and deep feeling, as when she sings the melody of the chorus in “Heaven Awaits” while the other three voices orbit her in contrapuntal echoes. As I reread this, I see that my account is coming off all grandiloquence and poseur, when what I mean to convey is the exhilarating sense of giddy delight at being swept up in their music. Then again, this feeling - verging always on foolishness and naivete - is one signal attribute of those moments I look for in my experience of gospel music, when my more reserved and circumspect self surrenders to the sound and an irrepressible grin overtakes me … so maybe I’m not that wide of the mark after all.
And, too, it’s not that I’m without qualms about the Perrys’ set. The pianist overplays nearly all his lines, so that what may at first appear to be boyish exuberance starts at some point to come off as an unseemly and desperate neediness, a self-indulgent distraction from what’s going on vocally. And speaking of distractions, I don’t know why the Perrys showed overhead slides of each person in the group, complete with his or her name, while they were singing a song, if Tracey Stuffle was going to introduce the group from the stage a few minutes later. Finally: whah whannh whah whah whanh. It is simply too difficult too much of the time to understand the words that the Perrys are singing. Habedank and Trammell, especially, need to get their chins up off their chests, stop singing to the footlights and start enunciating their lines more clearly. They might also find that they’ll have better breath support and won’t need to double over for diaphragmatic leverage if they get their shoulders back up off their lungs so they can fill their rib cage more fully with air. But these are minor quibbles (we all know the lyrics anyway, right?) that the set as a whole easily overcame. What remains in memory is the gobsmacked grin of giddy delight.
BRIAN FREE AND ASSURANCE: The last several times I’ve heard BFA, I’ve left assuming they just had a bad night, and then another, and another. You see the problem, I trust. Like KPNR, BFA has always relied heavily on the celebrity of the group’s namesake. But KP came up through the mixed-group side of the business, where female vocalists could (and, often, if they wanted a career in southern gospel, had to) sing like a soloist while remaining in an ensemble. BF, on the other hand, came up through the more conventional male quartet tradition, where men make a name for themselves singing stylized parts, and for tenors, that has meant – with very few exceptions – high, nasally, thin singing. It’s more novelty than art, really, and I wonder if one of the reasons BFA has never fully broken through is because the group has struggled for 15-odd years now, as both a trio and a quartet, to build a developed, serious sound around a novelty voice.
It’s one thing to give all the good lines to a voice like Karen Peck’s – rich, warm, full, and expansive. Quite another when the voice is reedy and metallic, clinched and cold. Free did a verse of “Sheltered in the Arms of God” tonight that was marvelous and moving. The track was just acoustical guitar and cello and Free was seated as he sang. His voice was relaxed and unforced, the tones round and resonate, entirely pleasant and pleasing. It suggested what another path might have meant for BF vocally, without all the nasality and compression.
As it was, Free struggled a lot tonight. Listening to him miss the big finish on “What a Beautiful Day” was like hearing a bad Johnny Cook impression – not a good place for a franchise tenor singer to be in middle age, and yet BF has been singing professionally for almost 30 years. And all voices have limits. So what’s the excuse of the younger members of the group? The baritone stood in almost the very same place he stood last year at this venue and struggled with almost the very same sort of lines in almost the very same ways. And Jeremy Lile … or, I should say, the roaring subwoofer that was impersonating Jeremy Lile all night … Oh my. He had barely to breath into the microphone and the subwoofer kicked in, which combined with already muddy, thudding lows on the track to create a swampy, swirling undertow of roars. Did they really rehearse like this and think it sounded good?
On top of this, BFA’s band tracks gave the impression of being played about a mile away from the stage, and though it’s by no means rare for sg groups to use a vocal stack even behind a quartet of voices, the stack on “For God So Loved” had the same ah-ah-ahhing choir of BGVs that you find on off-the-rack accompaniment tapes. As always, Bill Shivers turned in a solid performance that reminds us of how unfair it is that he’s among the most serially underrated leads in gospel music, and “For God So Loved” went over very well (even if it’s fast becoming BFA’s “Four Days Late”). But the group’s stage presence was no better than its sound.
The combined effect of it all was a professionalized amateurism that benumbs the aesthetic senses, a severe enough infraction by itself. But more troubling is the way this sort of cheapness dumbs down the collective sensibility, dulls our ability to perceive finer grains of artistic achievement and ability, desensitizes us to greatness, or even just goodness, and so wears us down and wearies us into believing that just good enough is as good as it gets.Email this Post