NQC 09: Final Thoughts
Gaither: I’ve been thinking all week about the take-away themes or feelings from this year’s NQC. And the overriding theme is this: There’s pretty much nothing of value and hardly anyone left that hasn’t been Gaitherized (more here).
Which is to say: So much of NQC is – whether consciously or not – working from a Gaither derivatives, and an entire generation of gospel music performers and fans doesn’t know that it was ever done any other way. Whereas when I first started attending NQC in the early 90s, showcases were usually expanded concerts for big names (the Kingsmen, the Cats, etc), now almost every major showcase involves a mix of styles and types of groups doing micro-sets of one to three songs held together by a (semi)famous name or personality. Sure, these showcases may have notional themes (Choirs on Fire or whatever it was Thursday, for instance, or Song of a Lifetime – which, I gather, should have been called the Jim Brady Show – or the Regional Showcase I sat in on Friday – trying to see the Nelons, whom I missed by showing up 10 minutes late). But it’s all derived from the same Homecoming template.
It’s happening on the mainstage too. This year, an idea we saw used moderately last year was scaled way up considerably: transitioning between main-stage acts by combining and recombining artists performing in close proximity to one another. This trick got old pretty quick, and felt like it wasted a lot of time on flaccid sing-alongs that could have gone to letting groups actually sing their own material (plus, occasionally the disjunction in personalities was just painfully obvious: for instance, the Dove Brothers pianist crouched over the left side of the keyboard pounding away in his histrionic fashion, while poor Stan Whitmire grimaced uncomfortably on the other side of the bench and tried not to become collateral damage or get peppered with flying sweat). No matter, this approach to transitions between sets clearly echoes the way Homecoming tapes capitalize on quirky ad hoc groups of talent that don’t normally sing together. Or Uncle Gerald’s Singing Bee or
Cousin Cletus Tim Lovelace’s bluegrass bandwagon that were featured at different points throughout the week. These sorts of variety show set-pieces that kick the evenings off are right out of the neo-singing convention approach that Gaither has all but copyrighted: finding ways of engaging audiences with music and musical personalities so that they feel like they’re participating, without asking them to surrender any of the prerogatives that come with buying a ticket.
This is not a complaint (or at least it’s primarily that), so much as an observation. It’s not been too many years since Gaither was nowhere to be seen at NQC. Now NQC falls all over itself and probably took out a special line of credit to get Gaither back to
The other major takeaway is the dearth of marquee personalities in the top-tier acts. I grouse a lot about musical mediocrity, and I think there’s ample evidence to bear me out on this. But Saturday night, watching Dennis Swanberg hack his way unfunnily through the Fan Awards and seeing so many honorees struggle to make acceptances speeches that went beyond boilerplate (you can learn a lot about a performer and the image they try to project when they have to hold a crowd without music on either side of what they’re saying … thus, Joseph Habedank = humility and piety; Jacob Kitson = entitlement and sass), I realized that to whatever extent the quality of music has been diluted by over-reliance on technology and by the glut of regional and paraprofessional talent, the realer decline has been in the overall musical experience as far too few show(wo)men have come up to take the place of the era represented by Younce and Sumner and Bennett.
Another way to say this is, the non-musical talents required of professional musicians is going down, on the whole. If you want to know why the Booth Brothers dominant fan awards, you’d be better off looking at Michael Booth’s ease of bearing and unforced humor on stage and the connection he makes for the group with their audiences than at their music. If you want to understand why the Hoppers beat out the Perrys for favorite mixed group, you’d do as well to look at the way the Hoppers have created larger than life personae out of themselves (the first family of gospel music stuff, and Kim Hopper’s preference for the ways of the diva and the snappy banter back and forth between Claude and Dean) than anything either group is doing musically. And so on. Better showmanship, please.
Finally, showcases. I only went to parts of two this year, and even that little exposure only cemented my decision to be increasingly picky when it comes to my afternoon time at NQC. About half way through the hour I spent at the showcase where I missed the Nelons, I had seen parts of several regional or c-list acts (The Browns, Aaron and Amanda Crabb, some other groups whose names I don’t recall), and the overriding impression was that NQC showcases have become musical victims of their own variety. Except for the novelty acts like the family with the fiddles, there’s nothing distinctive about this music. It’s either mediocre covers of familiar favorites, or else new music of just about the quality you’d expect from downmarket acts.
Meanwhile, the quality of the show itself is not much better than the music. Jonathan Martin was the emcee of the showcase I attended, and in addition to subjecting us to a feed-the-children hardsell from Compassion (the showcase sponsor, evidently), we had to sit through an anguishing five minutes during which he tried to talk the tech staff in the sound booth through the process of accessing the track for the tune he was going to sing off his iPod. Pain. Full. And this is at the Featured Artist Showcase (that is, afternoon concerts that feature a small selection of middle-tier talent). Only God, and the handful of diehards, know what kind of noise pollution is coming out of those Regional Showcases, which this year ran every day from 11:30-4 and, by my count, featured just shy of 200 acts. That’s two hundred! The only limitation on who can appear at some kind of NQC showcase these days seems to be pretty much a mathematical question. It’s little wonder that these all-inclusive weekend packages hosted by groups like Legacy 5 and Greater Vision are so popular. They limit audiences’ exposure to groups that aren’t ready for prime time, but wish they were.
The production quality of the Freedom Hall Showcases is better, of course, and the music is not as bad. But the hour of the Remembering the Music (aka Cathedrals Remembered) showcase I attended was underwhelming (see Daniel Mount for a diametrically opposed view). Two things stood out: The song “Hold Me,” which Wolfe called and Mark Trammell Trio sang, and that wasn’t mindblowing or anything but was a nice bit of unexpected variety of song-choice in an otherwise very predictable roster of Cathedrals tunes. And then, there was Danny Funderburk inadvisably calling mid-way through “Somebody Touched Me” for a modulation upward, only to miss most of the final high notes and visibly run out of vocal steam. It was a
cocky curious thing to do, not least of all because he was at best just hitting most of notes in his upper range up to that point. Perhaps this was a chance tin his mind to rehabilitate himself professionally in a powerhouse come back after the illnesses and other physical setbacks he discussed openly from the stage? I don’t know, but fortunately, I was in an aisle seat.