NQC 11: Thursday night
Tonight I made an executive decision to cut out early and get some rest. Watch this space for more tomorrow a.m. on what I heard this evening. In the meantime, feel free to supply your own thoughts.
Update: Last night it seemed to me the less said about Thursday’s lineup and experience the better, and sleep has only reinforced that inclination. One doesn’t, of course, come to NQC with the expectation of uninterrupted excellence, but even by this standard last night was rough going. A few moments stood out:
The Collingsworth Family: they are an unbreached and fully fortified wall of sound. This is not a new discovery, but each year, as those children age and their voices mature, the wall gets stronger and richer and rises up every higher and higher so that by the time near the end of the set when they closed with an a cappella arrangement, they seemed to be singing just a little lower than the angels. Theirs is an astonishing edifice of music that sounds so much like it’s constructed with the assistance of vocal tracks that I had to independently verify that the Cworth’s don’t use backing tracks with two separate People Who Know (this is, I gather, an edict of Mother Collingsworth; more on her momentarily). And this is true not just when it’s the six of them together, when it sounds like they’re doubling a trio arrangement and so might be expected by dint of sheer numbers to create a fully developed sound. It’s also true when it’s just break-outs of three or four of them. What I noticed more than anything else for the first time this year is Kim Collingsworth as a singer and stage presence. I could do without the Lady Liberace thing she does at the piano. I respect her abilities there and get it (a woman couldn’t bring the house down at the keyboard if brought 7 minutes of Stan Whitmire’s style), but the cooing tracks and the flashy parallel octaves aren’t any more interesting or less clichéd when she uses them than when Dino did. But not since Kim Ruppe Lord have I heard a female singer get non-ginned-up applause in the middle of a song for singing low notes. The woman has this kind of unadorned charisma and the charm of a preacher’s wife who probably should have been the preacher (I assume that’s a metaphor, since I don’t recall ever hearing that Phil Collingsworth was a preacher, but if he is, all the better for my point). The whole set was captivating.
Doug Anderson and Devin McGlamery: Aside from the Collingsworths, the only other set that regularly pulled the night out of the slough of despond and a sound that was for the most part swampy and sour all evening long was EHSSQ, particularly McGlamery’s lead work, which is gifted and endearing and probably doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves, and Anderson’s performance of “I’ll Take What’s Left,” off his new solo album. I suggested on Wednesday that the group needs to worry less about covering old Cats songs and get about the work of reimagining southern gospel quartet music as something other than nostalgia or self-righteous ministry – work that the group really seems more interested in and inclined toward anyway. And much of last night’s set seemed to provide a glimpse of just such a reimagination. The set opened with a few tunes from the group’s new album, which led to Anderson’s song. Befitting the song’s title, it was an acoustical spare and thoughtful solo, or actually, a duet really, with Wayne Haun on the piano. Haun has never occupied the typical piano player role in the group, serving more as arranger in residence who also plays keyboards. But last night he created a kind of musical dialog with Anderson’s lovely voice, amplifying the song’s textures and providing an instrumental harmony that was beautifully thoughtful and affecting. If, as the song’s lyric has it, this is all that’s left, I’ll take it too.
And then there was everything else, or what I could stand of it (I was in and out all evening and left altogether halfway through the Dixie Echoes). The risk of even beginning to describe the remainder of the evening in a way that even approaches accuracy is that one would come off as gratuitously jaundiced, or just dumb for subjecting oneself to such a spectacle of speciousness over and over. But make no mistake, it was a bad night. As Betty Butterfield would say, the experience left me so stoved up I had to take six Celebrex. Well, at any rate, my head was addled enough by the swill on stage that I might have entertained the thought, had I had the means to self-medicate. Instead, all I found in my media bag was this:
I honestly am not sure what it is, but given the Pfeifers music, it seems appropriate: garish, plastic, and annoying.
Anyway, the general problem is primarily that so many southern gospel “singers” don’t really know how to sing that well (which isn’t to say they should necessarily sing a different style of music but that they don’t know how to create the sounds they want in ways that don’t degrade their voices over time). This is a common enough a problem, at least at talent contests and church, but instead of getting professional (re)training that you’d expect of people trying to have a career in music, they persist in their inability, seem to mistake it for a divine gift in no need of merely human cultivation, and make a calling out of professional musical malpractice.
That’s why the Kingsmen physically hurt my head (I’m not exaggerating; I wasn’t the only one in my section shielding my ears for much of their set). That’s why the track on Mark Trammell Quartet’s closing song was about as subtle and restrained as the finale to your average Transformers movie. That’s why, though I hope Brian Alvey, who is no slouch of a singer, gets the professional development someone in his position could benefit from and help the Talleys reinvent their songs and sounds (there were moments in their set last night which suggested that such reinvention is possible and full of great promise for him and them), I’m not hopeful. And that’s why even those professionals such as Arthur Rice and Debra Talley, who really did learn how to sing early on in their careers, and who are beginning to manifest the inevitable warbling vibrato that comes with age, they nevertheless don’t seem to be getting the support that would help them mitigate the unembarrassing problem (Rice, for his part at least, seems aware of the problem and it sounds like he’s trying to correct it by circumscribing his tones more, but the resulting sounds often have a serrated edge to them that shears away all the warmth and richness for which Rice became rightly famous).
Emerson (good Lord, what would Emerson have thought of the National Quartet Convention!) once memorably wrote that the moods of the writer do not agree with one another, and this could certainly be said of the music critic at NQC who didn’t drink the mood-stabilizing kool-aid. One arrives, year after everloving year, with great hope and anticipation of what moments of wonder might be possible, only to find the momentary pleasures overwhelmed by proudly unaccomplished amateurism calling itself professional music. The less moody writer might also note that last night’s line-up was pretty weak, even on paper, and tomorrow (or this evening) is another day. So until then, I’ll try to forget all the music that seems to plunder southern gospel’s past to distract from its present, precipitous decline, and as the song suggests, I’ll (try to) take what’s left.Email this Post