Concert Review: Gaither Homecoming
Date: Thursday, February 12
Setting: Germaine Arena
Average age guesstimate: Snow bird
Attendance: ca 6000
If you want to understand what is probably the main reason Bill Gaither made such
revanchist splashy changes to the Gaither Vocal Band, sit through the first hour of the show on the Lovin’ Life tour. If you want to know why the strategy will probably work well enough, stay for the last 45 minutes before intermission for Signature Sound and whatever version of the sort-of newish GVB is on the bill that night.
Thursday it was Gaither, Michael English, Marshall Hall, and Wes Hampton (Phelps and Lowry will be appearing when the Homecoming tour doesn’t conflict with their touring schedule, or so said BG from the stage). The main impression this new, old GVB leaves on stage is that they’ve ceased being primarily about entertainment and become something more like gospel-music spectacle. This may just be a transitory quality that diminishes with time, but even so, watching and listening to English’s return to the group, I was struck by how much of the appeal involves the fantastic work of one’s gospel memory, the cognitive labor of squaring the man standing and singing in front of you with the guy we last saw – and couldn’t get enough of – with GVB in 1994. It’s a kind of meta-homecoming – one that English himself plays up by introducing his singing of “It is Finished” with a story about being homeless for a while back in the dark days of his grand decline … but you know what, Bill … now I’m home! Applause, applause, applause … Cue track.
Like I said, spectacle. But not an unaffecting one. GVB may no longer represent the leading edge of gospel music (and it’s this reality that most of us who complain about the changes are mourning, I suspect), but the artistic history and creative achievement they represent still commands an undeniable respect despite the diminishments of time and reversals of age and experience that the returning members bring with them.
For the GVB’s big finish, Hampton fed English the words to that masterful second verse of “It is Finished,” and the lyrics brought me up short, especially the lines that say,
These were battlefields of my own making
I didn’t know that the war had been won
I was honestly overtaken by an enraptured kind of awe, not so much by the quality of performance, but by the psychospiritual insight of the image – the way it tries to lyrically render the felt struggle of the enfleshed soul striving confusedly after some form of salvation – and the force of accumulated history brought to bear on that moment.
The GVB was preceded by SSQ. Maybe they’re just wearing me down (“if you can’t beat ‘em” and all that), but I rather enjoyed most of their set. Sure, Ernie Haase pulled a Phil Cross and tried too hard to create a spayshuul speerchul moment in the set-up to the singing of “Lullaby” from Dream On (given that, as EH said, the song was designed for dads to sing to their children at bedtime, it may not be a bad thing that the song has a very high probability of putting someone to sleep, but this may also make it an inadvisable choice for live concerts).
But the majority of the set was mostly the good kind of flatfooted singing (and those SSQ boys certainly do love them their shoes). The choreography was smarter, more restrained and tasteful, less hammy and High School Musical than in the past. And the song selection – especially “Someday,” “Reason Enough,” “Swinging on the
Ok, not totally wrong. Their set closed with “Then Came the Morning” and this was the SSQ we all know and love, or love to hate: ginormous stacks, complicated lighting, and an ending designed to realign plate tectonics. But this felt more like an obligatory concession to the reality of contemporary Christian entertainment than a hoodwinking. That, or I was just in a forgiving mood. Of course in a perfect world I’d prefer a group as capable as SSQ find a way to get crowds on their feet with less stacking and more acoustical work (this is true of most artist; the best moments of the night were ones like Janet Paschal singing “It Won’t Rain Always,” which never gets old to me), but back on earth, SSQ showed a greater demonstrable effort to be singers than they’ve done in the past. Indeed, it rather showed signs of becoming the kind of instant classic work that once was the domain of the Gaither Vocal Band.
But on balance this particular version of the tour feels tired and worn out. There are entirely too many soloists – Joy Gardner, Ben Speer, Russ Taff, Ivan Parker, Janet Paschal, and Lynda Randle, and that’s not counting Gordon Mote. And the generally crummy song selection makes even the shortest one-song sets start to feel overlong, as though this portion of the show was brought to you by Lunesta.
After the Collingsworth Family, who came on early and did perhaps the solidest and most energetic set leading up to the headliner quartets, the pace of music ranged from mid-tempo to moribund (I can’t be sure, but I think the drummer was taking short naps in the vast distance between beats on the two turgid tunes Lynda Randle sang).
More substantively, the Homecoming tour seems to have gone stylistic flabby in its late middle age. Joy Gardner sang one of those pointless Praise-and-Worship anthems that sets different names of Jesus to music. Sample line: “all powerful omnipresent soon-coming king” (shortly after Gardner left the stage, the local non-denominational community church called and asked for its accompaniment track back). Russ Taff’s song was rather like listening to a radio stuck on SCAN, changing quickly from a black gospel station, to blues/soul, to smooth jazz and then R&B.
Which is to say, where once the tour was a reliably southern gospel affair augmented by some inspo and contemporary sounds, it’s now largely a higgledy-piggledy assortment of songs that make a lot of different noises but never really cohere. Take the Hoppers and “
And alas, there is very little comic relief in the humor, which is by turns hopelessly past its use-by date (especially the recurring Bill Gaither for President jokes), sophomoric (esp the abundance of jokes having to do with farm animals and scatology), or just overdone (Marsh Hall didn’t even really bother trying not to look bored with the skit in which Gaither plays the old gospel pedant and repeatedly interrupts the beginning of Hall’s cover of an old Jubilaire’s song).
It’s not that this stuff isn’t often funny, or at least humorous. It’s the bottom-of-the-barrel quality to it all (I mean, the sound guy funny-man and the joke-cracking guitarist get more time on the show than most of the soloists). Indeed, I left after intermission, during one of the first quartet standards, somewhere between the second lowing-cow sound effect and the start of the crowing-rooster gag.
So you know … by all means, bring back Mark Lowry, and Michael English, and David Phelps. Seriously. Bring back the show-stealing vocalist who may have lost a little more of his hair but hasn’t lost any of his talent or ability (or so I’ve heard tell). Bring back the fallen icon whose aging body and diminished voice palpably remind us that the pull of gospel music and its redemptive potential vary in inverse proportion to our fallibility and frailty. And please, God, bring back someone who can tell better jokes.Email this Post