Monday, July 16, 2007

“Timeless” but not flawless

I attended a live DVD recording last week featuring "classic" contemporary Christian music (CCM) artists performing the smash CCM hits of yesteryear (mostly the 80's). The DVD release will coincide with a CD package called "Timeless." One thing was evident when Dallas Holm ("Rise Again") took the stage: he and Steve Carell ("The Office," "Evan Almighty") could pass for being twins. Uncle and nephew? CCM pioneer and secret love child? Worth investigating.

Larnelle Harris, the Imperials, David Meece, Bonnie Keen (of First Call), Bryan Duncan, Russ Taff, Crystal Lewis and more were also "in the house" (as the kids used to say, until their mothers picked up the phrase)...artists who don't quite have the current name-recognition of Steven Curtis Chapman or Amy Grant, but whose impact is still felt. The not-so-classic but extremely talented Allen Asbury made several major contributions to the evening as well, as did the Nashville Choir.

The evening was a very interesting mixture of hits and misses (mostly hits), performance-wise and otherwise. The audience missed an applause “opportunity” here and there, such as when Allen Asbury stepped on stage, and we weren’t sure who he was (“ that Michael English? Am I happy to see him?”). Comic Chonda Pierce did double-duty by hosting the event and singing a duet with Bonnie Keen. Some of Chonda's off-the-cuff jokes landed and others fell short, and Bonnie's vocal on one song was clearly out of her usual power range. But both made up for their shortcomings elsewhere: Bonnie in the remainder of her impressive performances, and Chonda by holding together a staged reminiscence of life as a preacher's kid with Russ Taff, who definitely needed a little help from his friends that evening (I can't imagine they'll be using his portion from that night).

It was tough to witness a fellow believer and vocal hero display his fallibility so clearly and with so much potential long-term damage. I’ve hesitated to mention it to anyone who wasn’t there, for fear of being guilty of gossip. But it was not a private event, and I was equally uncomfortable how the elephant in that room was tiptoed around for the sake of “the show must go on.” Besides, given the small readership I estimate for this blog, I’m trusting that what little fallout that might result would be negligible compared to the potential redemptive effect of the truth. And for what it's worth, Christian artists generally assume an extra amount of accountability as a balance to the extra rewards of “stardom” as a matter of course.

He was in less-than-stellar condition—right there in church!—but the truth is that, ultimately, his condition was no lower than (and probably not as low as) that of many artists who have delivered perfect performances, musical and otherwise, on many stages (including church platforms) but were far from experiencing an attitude of grace themselves, or even living out the truth they proclaimed so clearly. Myself included—except for the "perfect performances" part. So, no judging here. And the audience seemed ready to offer understanding and support as well, or at least to make the best of the situation. When Bryan Duncan and Larnelle Harris delivered "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" later in the concert, the words had seldom had such immediate application.

Frankly, assuming the issues have been addressed and no permanent harm was done to anyone's career or personal life, no doubt the shock has given way to laughter (as it does) among those involved, many of whom have had their own frailties to confess publicly (even though that can be a lucrative career move in itself, it's still not an enviable way to earn a living). I would pay cash to hear Chonda, Bryan and Bonnie give a behind-the-scenes recap of that night, knowing the sense of humor of each, and that they've each "been there" in his/her own way. Unfortunately I have a feeling that WON'T be an "extra" on the DVD.

Even beyond the drama, I had mixed feelings about the whole evening. Maybe it's the crust of cynicism starting to form after having been in Nashville for 5 years (and in the church all my life), but I couldn't help being a tad suspicious of the idea of putting these artists and songs out there again...maybe to see if there were any more money to be milked out of them? The combination of spirituality and showbiz is often not pretty seen up close. The creative side of me tends to be frustrated with business people and audiences who reinforce each other’s preference for rehashing memories over celebrating the current. Even when the memories are good.

On the other hand, I'm happy to see these artists be able to reconnect with audiences and show how "they've still got it" and that they're not, to use Chonda's phrase, "almost dead." I'm a fan, too, and got a thrill from hearing the old songs again live. As a believer I was reminded of where I've come in my spiritual walk in the years since the songs were new and the artists had fewer wrinkles, and I’m thankful for the songs and the people that brought them to life to edify me. I'm glad to see that I'm slower to judge when my expectations aren't met. I like to think it's because I'm not only older but a little wiser as well. A little.

I’ll be interested to see how the “Timeless” project (CD, DVD, tour) progresses. Regardless, when it comes to my listening habits I think I'll be sticking to the original versions (re-released on CD) when I have a choice. After all, these kids today...whadda they know about music!


it's just pop said...

This is great to read your thoughts. I was also there and sitting with some guys who were "industry" types. We were all pretty astounded by the whole thing. It was actually kind of a sick, sadness that left a pit in my stomach. On top of the horrible drunken state of Mr. Taff, I felt that the whole show was simply thrown together - just go out there and sing...and hey, if you don't know the song that well, just sing AROUND the melody and appear really passionate. I was thrilled with Crystal Lewis, Michael O'Brien and Dallas Holm, but felt like much of the rest were just propped up from behind and left to fend for themselves. I couldn't understand also why Allen Asbury sang SO MUCH and the new back-up group Anthem Avenue (or something like that), and then I realized that the whole show was produced by the guy who runs the label they both are signed to. Duh! And why throw in the "Wind Beneath My Wings" and "He Ain't Heavy" and masquerade them as Christian songs? I figured somebody owes somebody some money and they're throwing them a bone with some publishing royalties... Just my cynical guess. Thanks for writing this great post!msmeby1966

Mark Kelly Hall said...

Thanks! Yes, I agree about the non-CCM song choices...I wouldn't have been all that surprised to hear "From A Distance" or John Lennon's "Imagine." I remember how appalled I was to see a track tape for the first one in a Christian bookstore years ago. It proved there are plenty of people in the CCM world (incl. the audience) who have more industry knowledge than theological discernment. Maybe they're trying to reach a wider market?

And though I appreciate the concept of interpretation of a song, it was frustrating that Crystal and Bryan didn't stick closer to the melody on "I'm Forgiven"--but then the "Earth, Wind & Fire approach" with the horn section in the original by the Imperials would be hard to beat for me.

Janelle Martin said...

I wish I could have been there, I have always been a huge Bryan Duncan, Dallas Holm fan. I was saddened to hear about Russ Taff's decline, I guess it goes to show that no one, despite their background and profession , is Teflin coated...hopefully, this will be a "wake up" call, but I doubt it..most aging/burnt artist just don't recognize their own flaws, unless they allow themselves to become transparent by God's grace...scary, but worth it! Sounds like an interesting evening...

kwekubruni said...

I thought it interesting that a post asked the question, "why did Allen Asbury" sing SO MUCH?" I might explain this. The recording project was initially an Allen Asbury project. In fact, anyone who listens to the two CD set will realize that every song is Allen Asbury WITH a guest artist. It is unfortunate that the producers of the event did not make this clear. But, THATS NASHVEGAS!