NQC 11: Wednesday night
Well nigh onto two decades now, I’ve been making this journey to Louisville, and for the last seven years, I’ve been copiously documenting the full immersion experience of listening and processing and posting online for the long three-day weekend (Thursday-Saturday) that my schedule typically allows. Regular readers will have doubtless become accustomed to the tiered system I’ve used to organize my listening experience in that time.
But of course one’s relationship to these type’s of events never remains stable. In 1993, the first NQC of my memory, I was a teenage fan boy by turns fascinated with and horrified by the prospect of a life as a gospel music professional (and obviously “the horror! the horror!” won out). Today, NQC is much less a fan experience than a professional research and networking opportunity for me as an academic who researches and writes about evangelicalism and music; just tonight I was able to make valuable use of John Ashcroft’s
hackery appearance by meeting up with a fellow academic who also studies gospel music (and/but in Canada! h/t CU).
Which is a long way of saying, I no longer feel the desire or need to bring a pitch pipe and a stenography machine with me. I’ve done all that – a job for the young, if ever there was one – and I’m getting old. So what follows is far more impressionistic and less systematic than the treatments to which many of you have become accustomed. My aim is not to be comprehensive but to capture the impressions that I retain from a few key moments.
The Freedom Hall Sound: It still sucks, of course. And the sun also rises. The baffling nature of this particular suckage, though, is the way it can persistently be wrong through an entire group’s set (i.e. Signature Sound) and then seem miraculously to right itself for entire sets thereafter. A conspiracy theorist would be inclined to speculate about plots and subterfuge. A technocrat would wonder why one cluster of soundboard presets can go so wrong and another go so right. The ticket-holding fan (full disclosure: I was on media pass tonight) just wants to be able to hear what’s going on, which too often tonight was simply too hard to discern. Note that I didn’t say impossible. Perhaps more annoying than absolute silence is the experience of being able to catch snatches of what’s happening on stage. Call this the Bell-Tone version of NQC (“can you hear what other people are singing but not understand the words?”). The sense of distance and remoteness, without quite ever becoming full-on isolation, leaves the impression that those of us in the upper deck are being purposefully excluded. Not cool.
The High Road: I refer, of course, to the name of a female trio of (former?) Belmont students who were featured as part of the showcase winners. They sang the group’s namesake song and left me slackjawed with the acoustic simplicity and force of the sound and songwriting. Think the Isaacs crossed with the original Ruppes leavened with the undaunted energy and irrepressible verve of youth. My faith in the discernment of the NQC audience was momentarily restored when the group was warmly received. Then Dennis Swanberg was warmly received and things went back to normal. But for a few lovely moments, the planetary system of fan culture and good music seemed to align for a glorious burst of musico-existential rightness.
Janet Paschal: For this part of our lesson, class, let’s begin with a question: How do you know Bill Gaither is not in the building? Answer: Janet Paschal does a set that doesn’t include “It Won’t Rain Always.” Srsly. Of course my fondness for The J.P. is no secret, and though I don’t think a good 2/3 of the crowd had a clue what she was doing tonight, it was a charming set of self-possessed songs that Paschal infused with a raw energy and unself-conscious vocal power and range that contrasts sharply to the “pretty singer” role in which she has long been (inadvertently?) type cast in the Gaither universe. Mind you, her set – built around two newish songs, a summer wedding tune that I think was called “I Want Enough” and a big-bandy number that I think went by the name “Case of Love” – was more suited to the Hurstborne League of Women’s Voters Thursday luncheon in terms of its subtlety and sophistication (think cucumber sandwiches and strong Manhattans and Sugarbaker sassiness). Truth be told, that’s unfair. My notes actually say “this song is in the tradition of the Broadway diva pre-intermission show-stopper.” Which is true. Whatever. Love me The JP. Even if most of the audience seemed to have no clue. Too bad for them.
Scoot Shelnut: His bass accompaniment of Steward Varnado’s somewhat plodding piano solo was muddy and muddled in the mix but a magnificently intrepid marvel of syncopation and wit all the same. The best moments often come from those who aren’t trying to steal the show do so anyway.
The Perrys: First of all, Tracy Stuffle has lost a lot of weight, and for the first time I can recall he looks comfortable in his body. Good for him. Really. I admire the discipline it must have taken to get to that point. The P’s set was no homerun but it held up ok. The baritone delivered some lovely passing tones in the harmony lines of “Celebrate Me Home,” though someone needs to get him an accurate copy of the lyrics for “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” There are not nearly as many “and”s in that song as he seems to think there are. Still it was nice to see everyone want to love him all the same. The tracks all felt like they were being piped in from another room and that gave the entire set a subdued and off-kilter feel. Matters weren’t helped by Libby Perry Stuffle singing a song from her new solo album with a badly-amped track and canned BGVs, while perfectly excellent singers and players sat/stood there through all but the last bit of the song. But I quibble: the Perrys are still the masters of grand religious feelings and towering spiritual sentiment.
The Singing Rambos Tribute: The good news is, the Rambos brought a seven piece band, which also turns out to be the bad news, in this case, because it was a seven piece bluegrass band, which comes about as close to capturing the innovation of the Rambos’ instrumental style as bringing hotdish to a potluck. Close but not quite. In any event, the only song that “took” (as they say in the beauty shop) was “He Looked Beyond My Fault,” for which Donny McGuire played piano, sang really quite movingly, and delivered three modulations and countless drum kicks and a waving of hands worthy of the Love Boat at bon voyage. Which is to say, I loved it. In all, it provided something of a sonic anchor to the otherwise diffuse and unfocused stringtastic pluck-off that sullied the sound for the rest of the set. If all the people who make an amateur sport out of Rambo hatin’ would get over their personal grudges and proxy political point-scoring with Dottie’s descendants, they’d hear some of the most insightful and enlivened music in southern gospel (and even if you don’t agree, let’s be honest: when have questionable fashion choices, unfortunate hair, and dubious personal lives ever stopped anyone from succeeding in southern gospel? Honestly). Evidently from the NQC program, I gather that Rambo-McGuire is a going sg concern these days, so I hope we hear more of them in their own right and not just as a gussied up Singing Rambos nostalgia set.
EHSSQ: To be honest, it was like there were two EHSSQs tonight. One was a likeable oldies cover band, the other a hardworking quartet trying to redefine what it means to sing quartet music. The only constant was that they got knobbed throughout the entire set, which was truly unfortunate. What was striking was the diminished role of conspicuous choreography for the most part. It wasn’t absent, but it was more tastefully deployed, so that when the overt dance moves did make an appearance toward the end of the set, the place went nuts, which just proves that people conditioned to expect a certain kind of gratification will love it all the more if you withhold it from them for a while. Anyway, the bass singer’s rendition of “I Believe” was earnest and effortful, but too often it seems that a certain belchy or forced tone stands in for a missing texture or tonal richness, which tends to scatter his force as a singer (wasn’t it George Younce who was fond of saying that singers shouldn’t oversing or force tones they don’t have and instead let their voices naturally grow into their own depth and range?). Still, the arrangement of the song is alluringly captivating … it sounds like something off a Broadway show (in a good way), urbane and understated and yet memorably affecting. This, combined with what sounded to me like a new arrangement of “Till We Fly Away,” created a promising vein of possibility for a more self-possessed, less twitchy and over-thought EHSSQ. Let the spirit move, guys.
Greater Vision: With Chris Allman back in the line-up, they deliver exactly what I imagine a bespoke suit would sound like if it could sing. And I don’t mean that as a put-down. Allman is clearly the understated star of this show, with his self-abnegating yet ever-palpable voice, and the mix of tunes tonight suggests a shift in GV’s style toward a more different kind of ethos for song selection, notwithstanding the tune about the importance of living for a Christ-centered future that seemed nevertheless to end up dwelling in the past. On the drive down to Louisville today, the car ride included some vintage Allman-Trammell-Wolfe GV from back in the day, and I found myself wondering what the group would sound like if they hadn’t gone so fully into the orbit of the Rodney Griffin universe. Perhaps we may still be able to find out, if only a little.
Paul’s Journey: I know very little about this group, other than that they were formerly called the Relations quartet (not the worst name ever, but close to it). In any case, the tenor is a rarity: he has the focused intonation of the classic quartet sound but texturizes his upper registers with a warmth and roundness that prevents his head tones from going shrill in the tradition of Free and Sheppard. I came rather to enjoy the motor memory reflex of just about beginning to cringe when I thought “ohup yeah he’s going to go nasally and flat” and then he didn’t! More of this, please?
Jason Crabb and Friends: After tonight, dear ones, I officially declare that the one pianist I would take on a desert island with me is whoever it is playing for Jason Crabb. Him, and Lori Sykes on bass. And that drummer. In other words, it was like a set of Austin City Limits in Louisville. Set me free.
Gold City: Frankly, they were neither as bad nor as good as the partisans on either side suggest. The two things that stood out to me were: one, Danny Riley’s sound has ascended into his head and gone all honky; and second, I have no idea what the song “Peter James and John” is about. It seems rather like “His Name Was John” x3. But without a discernible internal coherence. Huh?
Triumphant: These guys have the stage presence of a shelf full of Ken dolls of varying vintage and their up-tempo stand-em-up style (tonight this style was represented by “Saved By Grace”) is overly aggressive and off-putting to my ear, but they have their moments. Most particularly, the verses of “Love Came Calling.” I still feel like the choruses belong to a different song, a more ditty-ish tune that isn’t on stylistical speaking terms with the verses. But whatever. Scott Inman’s delivery of the verses and bridge is masterful. I’m glad I stayed, at least until the beginning of that white hanky of surrender nonsense. It may have been 11 p.m. in Louisville but it was 5 o’clock somewhere on Bardstown Road.Email this Post