NQC 10: Friday night
There are basically two types of NQC fans: the True Believers, a varietal of the Joyful Noisers, for whom the music matters to the degree that it affirms bedrock beliefs about gospel music’s religious superiority and cultural uniqueness (and for whom technical or artistic proficiency matters less than celebrating the tried and true), and what I’ll call the Arts and Crafts Types, who place emphasis on form, style, skill and execution. In short, the art and craft of the music. The former far outnumber the latter, and though there are a few artists who can satisfy both groups, most measure success by how happy the True Believers are at the end of the night.
As a card-carrying member of the Arts and Crafts crowd, I’ve always known that for me and my kind, enjoyment comes in moments fleeting and tenuous, rare and precious, but powerful and longlasting. We store these moments up, and then live off them during long droughts of musical mediocrity that the True Believer noisily applauds.
But tonight, dear readers, your humble correspondent nearly starved to death. The night’s music was a thin gruel that left me woefully malnourished in the face of Screaming Kingsmen (didn’t Harold Reed used to be able to sing?) and any group that has “boys” in the name (I had to invent a new term – “serrated tones” – to even come close to capturing the ordeal of Down East’s tenor). MNP insists this is worst single night at NQC that she can recall. That seems pretty bold, given that she and I have been coming pretty consistently for nigh onto two decades now. But sadly, I’m not sure she’s wrong.
One operative principle of this whole enterprise of listening and responding publicly to NQC is that honest engagement with the music and an open embrace of competing perspectives (that’s you) encourages a more meaningful appreciation of gospel music’s value when it’s good. But this evening’s experience may have broken the back of that ethos.
So tonight’s report will look a little different. Specifically, I’ve scrapped the normal three-tired structure of categories I use to organize my thoughts because … well, frankly, they don’t apply to what I heard tonight. Instead, I’ll highlight a few things that stood out up in the nosebleeds and then remark on a few trends embedded within some of the more problematic moments.
Stuff That Didn’t Really SuckJanet Paschal: She brought three friends with her tonight – Cheri (sp?) Parker, Joy Gardner, and Katy Peach – and it was by far the most musically accomplished and compelling ensemble of the evening. The set opened with “God Rides on Wings of Love,” her newest single, and it’s frankly a dog of a tune, but that really doesn’t matter because the set ended with “I am Not Ashamed of the Gospel.” A friend joined MNP and me up in the bitter barn near the top of Freedom Hall and turned to me when the song was over and said: They should take that on the road. ME: where can I get tickets? The sound was rich and warm, full yet harmonically focused, big and encompassing (despite the fact that Paschal’s slider in the house mix was way too low), yet unforced and naturally fluent. It was impossible not to fall in love with this rewarding sound, and given that so many male quartets stink so badly, it’s easy to wish for a quartet convention along these lines.
Cody McVeigh is the Kingsmen pianist, but don’t hold that against him. While Harold Reed was hacking his way through “He’s All I Need,” McVeigh’s light, tasteful touch provided a welcome and classy respite from the lashing vocals. But it was also an impressive display in its own right, made all the more so for his lack of self-involvement at the keyboard. He reminded me of Wayne Haun during Sig Sound’s set.
Speaking of Signature Sound, I’m going to wait to reserve judgment on their Cats’ Reunion until I see and hear the full album, but tonight it was interesting to get a glimpse of that material in a live setting. I’ll say this for the group tonight, they certainly can’t be accused of over-stacking their set. It was very alive and warmblooded, full of nostalgic enthusiasm made more human by the noticeable rough patches in a few places.
The verses of Triumphant’s “Love Came Calling,” their new single, are melodically lovely, and Scott Inman treated them with very pleasant care and nuance (I hope you see that I’m really, really trying here to make a purse out of this dumbo-sized sow’s ear).
- To start with, there’s just a lot crummy, overlong, unfocused and uninteresting material out there. I’m not talking about people having a bad tune here or there in their mix. I mean, entire groups have built not just NQC sets but their whole identity around songs of Amazonian length, set at a funereal pace, with no lyrical or emotional core, and musically uncentered. The Freemans (last night), the Talleys, Crists, Melody Boys tonight (at least what I heard before I walked out) … the list goes on and on. For a lot of people, NQC is the only time to hear most of these groups. If you’ve got a captive audience and there’s a premium on time, why call a downbeat, dirgy soulsucker or a downbeat and dirgily arranged evergreen (Talleys again!) that takes up more than half your allotted time? This is a risky proposition in general, given the size of the performance space, but if you do this after, say, 9 p.m., you’re just begging to be ignored. Material and judgment are both in far too short supply.
- Tears may be the language God understands, but judging by the choice of tunes they call, most artists speak primarily in large, loud, bursts of sonic bombast. The Gaither Vocal Band was the primest illustration of this maxim. Their set resembled nothing so much as finger painting with boxing gloves.
- I realize that there’s never been a golden age when all the men were good looking, all the women strong, and all the kids were above average in southern gospel, but it’s pretty undeniable that southern gospel is currently enthrall as never before to massively overproduced tracks, backed up with vocal stacks of Mormon Tabernacle Choir proportions, to achieve effects historically created primarily by vocal talent (this is also true for piano soloists like Kim Collingsworth and Jeff Stice – Tim Parton is a notable exception; though he used a big backing track, he had some really originally conceived passages, most especially a segment near the middle of his rendition of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” that arranged the tune in the style of a Chopin Etude). In addition to making singers lazy (see below), this approach also makes it almost impossible for singers to not violate Harrison’s First Law of Tracks and Stacks: don’t draw attention to them. Tonight the GVB sang as bad as I’ve ever heard them, or maybe not. Maybe they just had the tracks backed way down more often than usual. Sure, David Phelps sang an A-flat in full voice. And Wes Hampton, who is probably the group’s most comprehensively gifted singer, had some really pleasing passages on a regular basis. But these moments were far outweighed by sloppy endings, showy harmonies riddled with pitchiness, and a general sense of apathy (David Phelps didn’t even bother to try to act like he wasn’t less than bored by all moments when he wasn’t stealing the show). In some cases these kinds of errors can be humanizing. But when you’re always singing with pitch perfect stacks, glimpses of humanity become conspicuous gaffes.
- Out of shape, sloppy, lazy, or otherwise serially unmusical singing. I’ve already mentioned the Harold Reed fiasco. But I’d hate to leave the impression that he stood out in anyway. This phenomenon is the great common bond of southern gospel, reaching from the Skyline Boys to Michael English to David Sutton (he gave McCray Dove a run for his money in the Incomprehensible Diction Department).
- Lazy showmanship: it’s not an unpardonable offense to sing the same big song this year that you relied on last year, but if you’re, say, Michael English, and you set up your rendition of “Please Forgive Me” last year with how great it felt to be back home and accepted after a long journey in the barren land of an inconstant faith, and the crowd roared – last year … well, it’s probably not really necessary to ask forgiveness again and tell everybody how great it feels to be back home and accepted after a blah blah blah. You’re forgiven already.
- The real shame of all this is that it makes the Arts and Crafts Type less likely to give a singer the benefit of the doubt because there’s so much accumulating evidence that mediocre is the new must-have of the
seasonindustry. I don’t, for instance, dislike the Easters and I really wish Morgan Easter well as she grows into her part in the group, but by midnight of an evening like this, all I could think during the Easters set was, I miss Charlotte, who provided a civilizing counterbalance to the intensely vernacular texture of the Easter family vocal style. Ditto the Perrys. Troy Peach seems like a super nice guy and he’s got the right onstage mojo for an emotional group, but I simply walked out and headed for the car when he started singing the first verse of … whatever it was he was singing. Masticated vowels and pitch shaving galore … it was like being inside a snow cone machine. Maybe earlier in the evening his folksy charm would have won out, but you can’t follow a night full of suckiness and get by on charm at 1230 a.m.
Yeah, sure, I know, I’m in the minority here, just as I know I’m among the minority that thinks that the Foxification of NQC is a thing to mourn (tonight we were treated to the unexpected “surprise” of Fox News/CBS talking head Rita Cosby hyping her new book about the flag, and fathers and faith). Just like I know I’m probably among a minority who believes if children are starving, that fact, all by itself, is the first, best and only reason Christians need to feed the hungry (a fact I had nearly 15 minutes to mull over while Gerald Wolfe assured us he really wasn’t putting the hard sell on for Compassion International).
I suspect these minorities aren’t as small as the majority likes to imagine when it’s clapping for marriage, mom, and
apple pie Fox News. But even if I’m wrong, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s noticing the steady erosion of the event’s focus on music as it slides in a swampy soup of profit-taking preachers, politics, and predigested pap. Which is to say: Not only does there seem to be less and less live music. There’s a marked deterioration in the quality of the music that’s left. And that’s bad news for everybody.PS: as always, it’s late, I’m tired and there are doubtless errors of fact or spelling here. Please let me know via email and I’ll fix asap.