Thursday, June 09, 2005

Alison Krauss: We Hide and Seek

The event would be shameful, save that it serves as a landmark for difference between my maturity as a teenager and now. The legendary Alison Krauss and Union Station played at the Fox theater in Atlanta smack in the middle of the '96 Olympic games. Her manager must have been asleep when booking: the city was watching gymnastics or track and field and the show didn't pull more than 200 people. Consequently, I had a ten dollar balcony ticket and walked up to the second row. Alison started singing with that sweet, soothing voice, and I did exactly what any teenager would do. Fell asleep. Hard. I don't remember a second of a surely spectacular concert, but I do remember that it was one of the more peaceful naps of my life!

Now, ten years older, with a broader range of musical appreciation (aka - bands other than Guns n' Roses are admittedly listenable), I have come to realize that Alison Krauss is about as good as it gets in terms of beautiful country-bluegrass music. At times she still is lullaby-slow and beautiful, and might induce a nap or two. But she can sing like no other and plays a mean fiddle. And buried in the middle of disc two of her live CD is one of the best songs I've ever heard.

"We Hide and Seek" is driving music at it's finest - a sunny day, all-instrumental fiddle and banjo song. It is dynamic, starting out with the central, hypnotic, mandolin riff and banjo line, adding lead instruments and pulling them away, streaming through the song like a spring wandering down the mountainside, sometimes a steady trickling and sometimes a full-blown waterfall. The blistering solos characteristic of bluegrass are showcased in partnership, trading between lead mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, and Alison's awesome fiddle. The peekaboo of instruments inspires the title of the song and depicts the resulting electric atmosphere enhanced by the spontaneous cheers of the live audience. The instrumental arrangement forces the listener to imagine unsung words, and I hear a spacious melody of bare-foot blue skies, and barefoot bright spring sunshine sublimity.

You're missing one of life's sweetest pleasures if you don't make a spot for "We Hide and Seek" on your favorite mix disc, somewhere near the Allman Brothers "Jessica" and Freddy Jones Band "Already in a Daydream." Pop it in the dashboard on a perfect spring morning, roll down your windows, call in sick, and make a beeline for the country, savoring the absolute joy found only in the perfect song and an open highway!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Ed Cash

"Have you ever heard Ed Cash?" Ben Lewis asked.

"No," I answered, as he threw an old tape into the dashboard of my station wagon.

"What does this song need?"

I hear a catchy, driving tune, sung by a man with a vocal range through the ceiling. But I have no idea. Several seconds later the choir kicked in, and suddenly I was listening to the first truly gospel tune of my young life. He had produced the album himself, cramming the choir of a local church into his living room. I wore the old tape out, wondering why my little guitar wouldn't sound like his, and willing my voice to climb that high (still two octaves too low).

Ed Cash still has some discs available online, and I've seen him perform incredible shows, but he has also done what many of the most talented musicians in the world do these days - produce music. Nearly ten years later, I ordered a Christmas present, Arriving by Chris Tomlin.

Bam, there it was. Ed Cash's signature written all over it. The strange organs he put on Bebo Norman's old CD's. The breathtaking fingerpicked guitar (Ed helped out on a song or two). Even the gospel vocals on several tracks. Obviously Ed has come a long way from self-producing Stability to creating a Dove-award winning record (that landed himself as producer of the year for 2005.) But the sound is eerily reminiscent of the early days.

Typically we hear a band or singer that we like, and stick with them. But we wonder what happens on a second or third CD - why isn't that as good as the first? What went wrong? Maybe the band or the songwriting, but also in all likelihood, the producer had a big part to do with it (either the wrong one or sticking with the right one too long, etc.).

Matching the right band with the right producer is arranging a short-term marriage. The band/singer is going to walk into the studio and say, I want a record that sounds like this (insert abstract description here). The producer takes the "man's" two word grunt, goes into the kitchen, and prepares a fabulous 12 to 14 course feast based on his expressed desire "want eat meat."

Not all musicans are like this - a talented one will seek out a producer who has created sounds he likes in the past and may be able to bring something new to the table. But by virtue of hiring the producer, a musician is saying, "I have limited talent. I am shortsighted in my musical vision. Tell me what to play and I'll play it. Tell me what to sing and I'll sing it."

So the musican gets a great disc and all the credit. An honest one like Chris Tomlin will pass the praise back to the "genius" producer, where it is largely due. And we will pop the perfect CD into the dashboard, tap our feet, sing at the top of our lungs, and all the world is right.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


Nature or Nurture? Is a great rock band born or bred? In the case of NeedtoBreathe the answer is both. Three of the central band members are PK’s – pastors kids – to very successful fathers who have learned how to produce a great show every Sunday morning. In addition, their families are musical. Bear and Bo borrowed a few of dad’s trumpet licks from the days on tour with the Gaithers (never heard of them? Look in the gospel section – they’re still bestsellers after several decades). Joe inherited his mother’s classical training and combined it with his father’s razor-sharp intellect and deep smooth voice. If a band was ever born with a head start, it is this one.

But if NeedtoBreathe are students of their fathers, they are also students of rock. Joe knows every word to every rock song written within the last 30 years (plus every drum lick). Bear studies image and marketing in an attempt to create a band with a huge look, a huge sound, and a huge draw. Seth first captured NTB's sound as a high-school student and now holds a degree in recording engineering. They have studied and mastered performance, sound, and showmanship and consequently earned a remarkably faithful and fired up audience of "Breathers."

On stage nature and nurture converge. Bear is up front, big as a mountain, singing breathy John Mayerish vocals with fifty extra pounds of testosterone and muscle. Joe is in the back adding smooth bass harmonies and a thunder of rhythm. Nick to the left banging the keys off his monster Triton. Seth to the right with a bass, retro glasses, and a "this is too cool for words" grin.

The two brothers are the center of the show. Bo is an electron orbiting the stage in a crazed frenzy, eyes wide and wild. If Bear is a rock, swaying with his low strung guitar; Bo is his otherworldly antithesis tethered to earth only by a microphone, where he will pant a few background vocals before launching back into orbit. Bear is the brains. Bo is the art.

After a midnight show in an empty bar I once overheard the frustrated question posed to the young guitarist who simultaneously feeds and feeds off of a crowd, "Bo, what happened tonight? You didn't go nuts!"

These days, Bo is always nuts. A huge rock show in an empty room is long gone. So are the all-day garage rehearsals on Sunday afternoons in Seneca. No more lunch shifts at Macaroni grill, road-trips in a dingy brown van, or pre-game meals at Kyoto express. The time has come for sharing the stage with the likes Switchfoot and Collective Soul. The long awaited contract with Atlantic/Lava records arrived, and a summer of recording in England awaits. Dreams are becoming reality.

Between you and me, though, I will miss the days of sneaking in through a side door to avoid a $3 cover charge. I will miss watching with a wide-open mouth, knowing full-well where this band is headed and smugly sharing this knowledge only with the doorman and sound board operator at an empty club.

The next time I watch NeedtoBreathe, it may be through binoculars at the back of a crowd of thousands. But I'm certain that even from that distance, their music and perfomance will still be, as it always has been, larger than life.

Catch a sneak preview of NTB's music on purevolume or

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Chip Houston: Daybreak

Chasing the Dark and Daybreak. The titles express the maturing of both music and life of Chip Houston, an Atlanta-based singer/songwriter gearing up for the release of his sophomore album, Daybreak, recorded with Grammy-winning producer Mitch Dane. Much has changed for Chip between the two records; marriage, a new job, a new home, and solidifying of dreams and purpose. He has a big-league voice that carries both albums. But the hint of timidity and uncertainty that restrained Chasing the Dark is nowhere to be found on Daybreak. “We’re aimless, but we’re going somewhere,” Chip sang on the first record, as if conscious that it was a stop on the way to something bigger.

Bigger, this time, means musical stripping, dedicated songwriting, and a good deal of soul bearing via acoustic duets with guitarist Willi Boos. The result is vocals and guitar front and center and a cohesive, catchy hour of great music.

Bigger also means greater spiritual emphasis and personal transparency. The two radio-friendly songs, I Belong to Love and Audience of One could be considered creedal statements. Daybreak narrates the Genesis tale of Jacob wrestling an angel in order to receive divine blessing. October Brings Me Down tells of divorce and suicide. Waiting on You speaks of longing for heaven.

Though spiritual, this is not a kumbayah record. Houston’s faith is a manly one of conviction and determination. He is Jacob wrestling for the blessing on Daybreak. He is refusing to give into regret, shortcomings, and popular opinion on Audience of One. With Daybreak, Chip puts his “hand to the plow” as if to say “this is who I am and what I’m about, take it or leave it.”

Daybreak is set to release on April 29. Gifted with a sound business sense and solid work ethic in addition to the stellar voice, Chip wants to hit the ground running with Daybreak. He has a flurry of shows through Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas over the coming months. Get out, enjoy a show, pick up the new record, and give it a well-deserved listen. You will be glad you did.

for more see:

listen or purchase Daybreak on CdBaby


Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Shane Barnard

Every once in a while you come across a disc that raises the bar of music to a higher level, one where everything you listened to before it becomes drab and everyone else no longer measures up. Rocks Won't Cry was one of those discs. I was a fan for life by the end of the first track - the superhuman strumming rhythm, perfect runs, soaring harmonies with sidekick Shane Everett, Hammond organ, thundering drums, and incredible "kinda live" feel. Psalms, the sequel, was even better, if that is possible. The prayerful songwriting became deeper, the dynamics more intense, the music tighter, and the voices still perfect.

Needless to say, when they made a rare stop to a nearby college, I was there (early enough to chat with a few crew members before sound check:).

Somehow, as much as I loved his music, I had never seen a picture of Shane. So when the two musicians walked out on stage, I automatically assumed the goofy-looking one with short curly hair and cargo pants (with a slight resemblance to Lieutenant Dan from Forest Gump) was Shane E. and the big, handsome one was Shane Barnard. Oops. As the concert progressed, I was puzzled both by his appearance and mannerisms. He didn't look like the greatest musician I've ever heard. He didn't talk as if he was great. Or act great. I would close my eyes and listen to the incredible sound, then open them to, if I can be honest, disappointment.

Lest I sound unkind, I insert that Shane was the first to laugh at his ordinary appearance. And to assert his insignificance. "I'm not the guy who sat around playing guitar in his room," Shane said. "The only reason I'm here is I did a CD as a favor for my mom and it got in the wrong hands. God gave me a girl's voice and the ability to play, and for all I know it may be gone tomorrow."

I came to meet a hero, but instead I encountered an ordinary man blessed in extraordinary ways, who was the first to claim so.

"How do you stay humble?" I asked him after the show.

"This is not me and not my doing," he answered.

He was not the only amazingly humble one out of the band. Shane Everett clearly never sought to steal the spotlight. He stood by quietly, some songs only inserting 6 or 8 bars of strumming and a harmony line. Drummer Will Hunt, with a spectacular kit of an African "snare" and toms and traditional kick and cymbals produced mabye the strongest live sound I've ever heard (being in Waite Chapel at Wake Forest may have helped a bit). During a broken string moment of silence, someone shouted "Drum Solo!"

"Amen," I thought to myself.

But he shook his head and then bowed it. The show was not about the music. Nor the musicians. Nor the phenomenal sound. It was about God's greatness and nothing else.
I came looking for a new hero and left dissapointed with the realization that I sought another false idol. There is one hero, and Shane and Shane's music is all about Him.

For more, see the interview

Monday, April 04, 2005

Independant Bands

Here's a pair of reviews that published on Jars of Clay and Derek Webb a while back:

Who We Are Instead
Since their self-titled first release, Jars of Clay has been searching for their musical identity, and they have finally found it. Who we are instead is a delightful mix of vintage gospel feel. It blends acoustic rock with a touch of country, adds some driving programmed drums for a borderline pop feel, and the 1930's piano to balance the modern with ancient. The songs are simple on the surface, but gain depth each time the CD spins - and it will - this is the sort of record that you leave on repeat for days on end.

I See Things Upside Down
Derek has a lot on his heart and uses his songs as the vehicle for his message. With "I See Things Upside Down,” however, the vehicle looks a little bit different from Derek's past discs. It is a somewhat schitzophrenic journey from anthem to classic rockish ballad. Lot's of droning organs, electric guitars, old-timey piano, about quadruple the number and variety of instruments. Think the sound of U2, Beatles, Rolling Stones, with the message of a modern day John the Baptist. It's a welcome experiment in a new style that quite possibly may rub pure acoustic singer/songwriter fans the wrong way. But it's still worth the purchase just to study the lyric sheet.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Jars of Clay: Self titled

I'll open up the floor with an oldie and all-time favorite. I saw Jars of Clay for the very first time about ten years ago, seated literally onstage in a little church in Georgia. I was determined that I hated Christian music at that point in time, but admitted that "the guitar-guy's hand moves really fast. Cool." Pretty big praise for an eighth-grader.
The first album (although the only one not to receive a grammy) the band's best CD by far. It's the pinnacle of acoustic rock - quickstrummed guitar supported by strings, pianos, harmonies, and great songwriting. Highlights are "Worlds Apart" - one of the most deeply layered songs ever written, both in terms of lyrics and instrumentation - and "He" - a heartbreaker written from the perspective of an abused child.
As a friend put it: "There's no one who wouldn't like this kind of music." Agreed.