Concert Review: MTQ, Ivan Parker, The Perrys
Date: January 1, 2011
Location: Fort Myers, FL
Setting: Riverdale High School Auditorium
Average age guesstimate: Snow bird
I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t go to this concert. Pretty much knowing that two out of three acts would be mediocre-to-bad was not enticing, no matter how reliably the Perrys come through. So I did what anyone in a dilemma would do: I phoned a friend, who reminded me that when you live in a place where there’s little access to live southern gospel, you should take the opportunities as they come.
When I got there, Mark Trammell Quartet was about halfway through their set in the middle of a piano-bass number featuring the newish bass singer, Pat Barker. The group seems to be getting a warm reception these days, particularly since they are now a quartet. Indeed, I gather a lot of the love flowing their way right now has to do with quartet fetishization, as if a quartet is prima facie superior to other formations. There is ample reason to doubt this dubious proposition in general (namely, the fact that entire flotillas of toxic-sounding quartets are vocally at sea at any given moment in the churches and county fairs and benefit concerts of the American byways). But in MTQ’s case, Barker undoubtedly adds a lot of energy and personality to a group that has never been in danger of being nominated for Most Charismatic Singers.
For my part, Barker spends too much time trotting out every trick and tic from the bass singer’s handbook of gimmicks and attention-grabbers: the knee-bend, the leg swivel, the sternum pat while tilting the upper body back, leaning forward and giving the mike chord a squiggly shake out in front of his body as if making room for the enormity of his own sound, pointing to random audience members like he’s sending this note out just for you … and so on. But whatever. Though somewhat self-involved, he’s a gifted singer, and the group’s sound is equally solid in the lower voices. The tenor frequently mars the ensemble sound, but not any more so than any other quartet on the road.
The thing about MTQ – as with MTT before – is that it really turns out to rise on fall pretty much entirely on Trammell’s reputation as a former member of the Cathedrals. No former Cathedral will ever let an audience forget his time with the Cats, but once you get past that fact in this case - unlike Greater Vision and EHSSQ and L5 - there’s just not much there but a lot of overproduced tracks and some stale banter between Trammell and Barker. George Younce once famously remarked that Trammell was the best quartet man in the business, and by this, Younce seemed to be referring to a constellation of qualities – among them, dependability over flashiness, a capacity to surrender the spotlight to others, a voice well-suited to the ensemble more than the marquee lights – that every good group needs and that Trammell has in spades. But no matter how desirable these qualities are, they aren’t indispensable to a group’s greatness, and listening to MTQ leaves the impression of people on both sides of the footlights trying hard to convince each other that something just ok is actually really great.
As for Ivan Parker, I caught his stand at NQC a few years ago and wrote at the time that it might have qualified as one of his worst performances ever. Alas, I’m sad to report that I must take that back after last night. Parker’s sets usually go – as things more or less did yesterday - something like: uptempo, midtempo, Gaither, “Midnight Cry.” Yesterday, there were hints that things were going south around the midtempo part of things. By about halfway through the Gaither portion, I was thinking to myself, there’s going to be serious trouble here. And oh was there ever. I mean, he struggled not just to place his tones but just to generate sounds at all in some places of “Midnight Cry.” To get through the song’s ending, Parker basically had to hum histrionically around the BGVs on the track, and in order to encore the final chorus, he had to turn it into a singalong.
Crowds love this stuff and him, of course. He’s Gold City When They Weren’t a Punchline and Gaither in one convenient plastic package. But watching him struggle so visibly on stage, I was by turns baffled – does he think no one notices just because everyone keeps clapping? Is he unwell? Out of shape? Can he not hear what’s going on? – and embarrassed …. for him, yes, but also for myself, as if I had done something wrong by not looking away.
The Perrys came on last and lit the place up. I’ve raved about the Perrys before, and last night they were in high form, arriving with their particular brand of energy and charisma and warmbloodedness. No matter how many times I encounter it, I’m always amazed and mildly awestruck by their capacity to fill a room not just with music but with a mood, a feeling, a presence of grace and glory.
Last night they achieved all this despite getting knobbed a little throughout the set. Tracey Stuffle made a point of saying they come to bless not blast, which is great and all. But there’s a difference between blasting and sonic balance. In their case, the instrumental tracks were backed too far out of the overall sound for most of the set. In at least once instance, the band track abruptly just disappeared from the house mix while the vocals were still closing out the song’s final phrase. The effect of these oddities was a mildly hollowed out sound that tended to dull the leading edge of the group’s energy. Strange, but not insurmountable.
A little better than half of the set was given over to songs from the new album, Blue Skies, which could be judged a success at least in terms of providing a good mix of material for a live set. “Celebrate Me Home,” as the title implies, is written from the perspective of a dying saint imploring those who survive to grieve but also to “celebrate me home.” Inevitably this song makes me think of the Kenny Loggins Christmas tune of the same name, so much so that I don’t think I really listened to it that closely on the cd itself. But encountering it live, I noticed two things. First, it has what is an increasing rarity: an almost purely vocal bridge. That is, the bridge doesn’t rely on half the orchestras in the eastern bloc countries of the former Soviet Union to make its point and instead uses a series of ascending harmonic intervals in the vocal ensemble to sonically illustrate the song’s key concept of spiritual flight. Coming off two songs propped up by hymnic bridges (”He Will Hide Me” and “It Was the Blood”), this was particularly refreshing.
Second, I couldn’t help but hear in this song a kind of dialog with another Perrys’ tune about death and faith, “I Will Find You Again.” Whereas the latter song addresses itself to the experience of dying for those who live on in grief, the newer tune speaks to this same experience from the perspective of the person crossing over, creating what literary critics would call a intertextual dialog with the earlier song between those who must go and those who stay behind.
Things concluded with the show-stopping “If You Knew Him.” I’ve taken issue with the song lyrically, and I still cringe at the conceptually disjointed relationship between the first verse and the chorus. But when the song works, as it almost always does live, one doesn’t think about it so much as emote through it. This was certainly true last night: somewhere near the middle of the second verse, the lyrics started to dissolve as linguistic signifiers and meld into a verbal scaffolding for the conveyance of great, glorious feeling.
This was my first time hearing the new guy, Bryan Walker. And I think I can say that after struggling with personnel choices in the baritone slot for a while, the Perrys seem to have made the Goldilocks choice here. If Nick Trammell was too tepid and Troy Peach was too raw, Bryan Walker is just right: vocally confident and pleasantly in tune, charismatic and self-possessed but with a light touch that doesn’t seem to rival His Habedankishness, which would of course destabilize more than just the group’s musical dynamics.
Habedank and most of the Perrys’ fans seem to think he’s the star of their show, and (obviously) the Stuffles think so too. But as much as I enjoy listening to him sing, I can imagine the Perrys without Joseph Habedank (indeed, one wonders how long it will be before he launches off on some venture of his own where he is the unmistakable locus of the sound). I cannot, however, imagine the Perrys without Her. Indeed, this often seems to be what most people don’t realize: that Libbi is the real center of the Perrys’ musical universe, which means the group really just needs solid, dependable, blendable voices to fill out that wall of sound around her. Because, really, does anybody go to see anyone but Libbi? Not me, dear readers, not me.
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