A few days ago over at Adam Edwards’s site, I saw this video of Chris Allman’s first night back out with GV doing an acoustic rendition of “Hallelujah Square,” but I decided not to link to it because the quality of the videography is just so appallingly bad (not only does the person with the camera appear to be filming from somewhere near the side parking lot of the venue, our phantom filmer also decides to pan from stage to screen, which results in lunging jerks of the camera up and over and around and down and blurringly back up and in toward the general vicinity of where the jumbo projection screen may be). But then reader DJ sent me a link to a version of much better quality that’s worth a look and listen:
A few thoughts in no particular order.
1. I’ve always vaguely disliked “Hallelujah Square” for its formulaic sentimentality and the mawkish, trite way it objectifies real human suffering in the world, as if the main reason for Christian suffering is to help those not suffering feel ok about their good fortune when bad things happen to good people (remember, the song was written in 1969, so it’s not like it dates from some bygone era of unironic innocence). But whatever. It’s no worse than any number of old gospel warhorses and crowd-pleasing standbys in this regard. But for some reason this was the first time I’ve really grasped the outrageousness of the first two verses’ conclusion. You know the parts I’m talking about right? Where the singer/narrator of the song turns to the blind guy who’s been the focus of the first verse so far and says, “Friend, you can’t see!” and then in the next verse walks up (walks!) to the “crippled man” and says “My friend, I feel sorry for you.”
Maybe it’s the emphatic urgency with which Allman makes so very present these lyrics we’ve all encountered a thousand times and probably learned to more or less only half listen to (typically the point of the song, I think, has as much or more to do with the tradition and memories it evokes as the literal message it’s lyrically conveying). Whatever the reason, this morning it was like I was hearing them with new ears and the BS-detector set on supersensitive. I mean, honestly. Who does that? Go up to a sightless person and say, “Friend, you can’t see!” (like it’s news to the blind guy!)? Let’s stipulate up front that gospel songs, like many stylized modes of expression, try to make a point in the real world by using idealized or imagined or fictional or allegorical or otherwise artfully “unreal” constructs. Even so, the idea of even the most well-intentioned, able-bodied person of faith passing by someone with a disability and blurting out, “I feel sorry for you!” is just so preposterous it makes me giggle. Sure, we’ve all felt this before (and that’s probably the most powerful defense of the song’s heavyhandedness, that it says what most of us think), but there’s a reason nobody actually says this kind of thing: because we’re trying to have a half-way decent society here. And maybe that’s why this was the first time I also imagined I could hear just maybe a little smart-assiness in the disabled guy’s reply: “Up in heaven I’m gonna walk just like you.” Until then, please go away.
2. Allman really is probably one of the finest lyric singers in gospel music. His voice is not the prettiest, actually, nor the richest or most textured, and he can go thinnish in the upper ranges. But what distinguishes him so much is, first of all, his awareness of his limitations, which in turn gives him a self-possession of voice and manner that results in an almost eerie, certainly enviable confidence to conquer without screaming at the cheap seats. Another way to say this is, I enjoy watching him sing as much as listening to him: The absence of histrionics, the unprepossessing subtly of physical gesture and vocal ornament that collectively convey an abiding sensitivity to the expressive curve of a lyric, the restrained power to wring the last ounce of feeling from an idea … in short, it’s a pleasure to witness someone work who knows how to connect with people from the stage the way Allman does.
3. There are other clips from that first night out (alas, these appear to be more work from the Blaire Pitch Project of videographers who recorded that first version of “Hallelujah Square”), and here’s what I notice: though “Hallelujah Square” is the weakest song in a technical, artistic sense, it’s the best performed number of the four I saw. Why? Because it’s fully live. Compared to the acoustic number, the tunes done with tracks seem lifeless and predictable, somewhat plastic and coldblooded (the corollary here is, of course, using live instruments is not itself a guarantee of making good music, as this items reminds us). Though I have no doubt Allman will do fine to fabulous with numbers from the old Greater Vision songbook (here’s one) - and I’m eager to hear him cover these songs, as I’ve said before - the real takeaway from these clips is that talent like Allman’s is to some extent frittered away with accompaniment tracks and sets mostly full of sing-by-number songs.Email this Post