NQC 09: Friday Night
There’s always at least one night like this. The night when at some point you just have to leave because too much music is just too boring, and you start fearing that if you don’t get out of there immediately, all traces of individuality may be sucked out of your identity and you will turn into a gospelbot. Used to be, before the Fan Awards moved to later in the week, Saturday was That Night. This year, it was Tonight.
Partly this feeling is the inevitable comedown effect of tonight’s lineup including the Gaither Hour. Whatever night it falls on, the rest is prelude and postlude. I’ll parse the sets below, but even allowing for an element of self-parody that’s creeping into the Vocal Band at this point, from the 30,000-feet level, Gaither is still a caliber of performance and ability unto himself. Pretty much everything else is, by definition, going to miss this mark.
Then again, another way to look at it is that the contrast helps bring into focus the epidemic lack of originality or imagination in so much of what’s going on in mainstream, allegedly top-notch acts. Sure, sure, nobody likes it but the people, but the Signature Sound/Vocal Band set sort of puts the lie to that line inasmuch as Gaither is the only artist left in gospel music that can pull a majority of ticket-holding conventioneers to the main auditorium at the same time. And while Gaither is not shy about sticking with what works, one can hardly accuse him or his shows of being unimaginative retreads.
Sooooo …. best of times, worst of times etc.
Enough preamble. Here we go:
THE BIG STUFF
To the Constant Talkers in Section 315: yes, everyone heard you, and yes, those were dirty looks everyone was giving you. I left my WWJD bracelet in the hotel room tonight, but the woman in front of me stage-whispered to her husband that she wished you would SHUT UP!
Signature Sound: the first 1/3 or ½ of the SSQ set was pretty much what you’d expect. The choreography and the breathy, cloying emcee work, the well-sung, smartly arranged, beautifully orchestrated neo-classical quartet music, and lots of talk about living the quartet dream, etc. But then after “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” something happened. The group seemed to go off script for most of the second half of the set. Haase called an acoustic encore of “Reason Enough,” which had started things off for them, and Doug Anderson, the vibrant vocal center of the group and an astute showman, reprised a few very lovely lines from the chorus of that song. At this point, in some palpable, if immeasurable way, the flow of feeling perceptibly shifted. It’s probably a coincidence that at about the point when all this was starting to happen, I was jotting a note to myself that the rendition of “Wonderful Grace” for the first time sounded more genuinely like theirs, rather than primarily a knock-off of the Cats arrangement (like they’re beginning to feel its musical relevance to them, separate from the original’s sentimentality or the brand value of hearkening back to the Cathedrals). Still, this line of thought – that maybe SSQ is beginning to move out from under the shadows that were necessary during the group’s formative years – converged with a departure on stage from the usually scripted set in a timely fashion. Haase seemed to be picking his way rather carefully through a series of audibles, tring to find the calls that would most effectively rally the crowd around them (given the rather ho-hum response to SSQ’s first few songs), and after a truncated “What a Savior,” the set ended with a really savvy use of the thousands of music fans in the room, whom Haase deployed as a mass choir backing the group in a few choruses of “Amen.” This part was most likely in the plan, but that only reinforces how successful the right balance of script and spontaneity can be. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if SSQ was by default uncomfortable with more free-form sets in this sort of space. Haase’s formative years as an emcee and group owner have been under Gaither, who is the master of copiously planned spontaneity. But we all have different gifts, and not everyone can make the rote seem relevant, real, and ever new. In SSQ’s case, it was interesting to watch some of the affectations they tend to rely on fall away, to see a less contrived set of personalities emerge in the second half of the set, and to find the NQC crowd warm up nicely to them.
Gaither Vocal Band: Perhaps the best way to describe their set is to tell you about the guy sitting a few seats down and to the right of me. The moment Michael English’s microphone started up toward his mouth, this guy started screaming. Not whoop-whooping. No macho-man sports yawp. A primordial, full-on fanboy scream. Ditto, his wife. This happened more or less regularly throughout the set. It other words, it was already a house-afire success pretty much before it even started. Which makes commentary on the sonic experience somewhat pointless, I guess. The semi-short version, fwiw, is that the new Vocal Band Quintet creates the effect for the listener of walking into a wall – nay, a propeller – of sound. Sometimes Wes Hampton is doubling Phelps. Other times it’s about thickening the bottom of the harmonies for whatever fireworks are going on above. But always, when it’s time to close the deal, an unrelenting, towering, architectural onrushing sound. They still do nuance, or maybe more correctly, they do stuff that reminds one of when the Vocal Band really did nuance with … well, nuance. But this is not primarily a subtle act, and perhaps an attempt at balance explains the comparatively quiet ending to the set – the Homecoming Finlandia adaptation (with those cringy self-help lyrics about relationships demanding commitment and the need to be there and follow through), which concludes with a simple amen. And with they left. And my neighbor a few rows down wailed in delight and grief.
BONUS STANDOUTS AND OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING
The Booth Brothers: Hard to say when it happened, but at some point in the past few years, the Booth Brothers passed that difficult-to-discern but very important line that distinguishes top-tier talent from the rest of the major players by becoming one of the artists who has to do nothing more than walk on the stage in order to command the attention of the room (of course it doesn’t hurt to have Stan Whitmire at the piano either). No small feat tonight, coming in the wake of the cognitive dissonance created by the Gaither hour and the Dove Brothers back to back. Tonight, though, the Booths seemed to struggle a bit. Their endings were a lot more splattery than normal for them and their entrances were not always very certain. At times, the ensemble felt noticeably uneven. At some point, the crowd’s initial attention started to drift. Maybe Ronnie Booth noticed this toward the end of “He Saw it All.” At any rate, just before the tag he blurted out words to the effect of, neither Buddha nor Mohammad could claim to have risen from the grave, and then they tagged the song: “ask the blind man, he saw it all.” Okey dokey. Of course the crowd pulled themselves back into focus at the mention of eastern religions, and gave the BBs a rousing send-off. Which is interesting, because just this afternoon, a friend of mine was positing a theory that in southern gospel, a sure way to turn straw into gold on stage is to associate any song – whatever the lyrical idea or musical point, whether the tune is a dog or a ditty or just failing to launch – with some sectarian or ideological wedge issue (rival faiths, school prayer, one nation under God, whatever), and voila: the song stops being mediocre and suddenly becomes a rallying cry for God’s persecuted remnant. This requires more - or maybe different - thought than I give it right now. In the meantime, just ask the blind man.
Legacy 5 and Triumphant: Here’s a question for you. What’s the marketable difference between these two groups? Not what is different about them. But what are the marketable differences. What sets them apart. Watching and listening tonight, it was not immediately clear. I know how to answer that question for the Kingsmen (in a word: sforzando … plus Hamill), and for the Kingdom Heirs (Dollywood), and for DBQ (if you have to ask …), and
McKameys and Inspirations: trans-Appalachia’s favorite sons and daughters were not well received tonight on the whole, at least not until Peg had her fill of it. It started with the Inspirations, sans Archie Watkins for the first time in who knows how long. They dutifully worked their way through a typical Inspirations’ set, including several a cappella encores … and the crowd more or less just sat there. So Martin Cook walked away from the piano and tried to whip up some enthusiasm while the boys toiled away at “I Have Not Forgotten.” But this no-Archie-havin configuration just got no love from
Hoppers: They opened with “I’ve Come Too Far,” and it was a classic arrangement with live enough band, reminding us why we fell in love with them in the first place (and have mostly stuck with them through their Paula Stefanovich phase). But let’s speak plainly here: coming on at 11:15 p.m. on a Friday night and opening with a prosy ballad, classic arrangement or not, is blunderous. Yes, “
Poundage: The piano in the main hall was noticeably out of tune tonight, thanks, no doubt, to the relentless beating it’s taken all week (except from Stan Whitmire and Tim Parton!). Perhaps Kim Collingsworth and the Dove Brothers’ pianist can split the tuning bill?
Calling Cody: a friend had joined me in the nosebleeds when the Diplomats were doing their micro-set (they covered “This Is Just What Heaven Means to Me”) and he leaned over about halfway through and said, “Somebody needs to find that kid from last night.”
Quote of the day: “I’ve always found a way to attach myself to the happening thing … first the Cathedrals, now Greater Vision and the Booth Brothers.” Scott Fowler, talking about his brainchild album, Jubilee, which combines the three groups on one project.
To Sharon K. King: My mother emailed me today and told me she just loves your song, “God’s Been Good.” (Hi mom!)
KPNR: “Four Days Late”
Greater Vision: “He’d Still Been God”
Tomorrow: I’m getting an Erhler’s Ice Cream Cone.Email this Post