Guest Post: DVD Review: A Tribute to the Cathedral Quartet by Signature Sound
This is a guest post from NewSoGoFan.
As great of a “sound” as Signature Sound has always had, Ernie has always thought visually with the group. It was not a CD project that launched them into the stratosphere but a video—five years ago with their self-titled Gaither DVD. They were already on their way up, but 2005 was the year things really began accelerating for them. Since then, they have found some detractors, but at the same time they have found a large and loyal fan base.
Much as I enjoy the group’s music and sound, my favorite moments from the group have mostly come when they settle down for something classic and classy like “Lovest Thou Me” or “Since Jesus Passed By.” Of course I wouldn’t be without the high energy of “Trying to Get a Glimpse” or “Stand By Me,” but in terms of presentation and delivery, the group shines best when they do it low-key. They have proven time and again that their famous “choreography” is a dispensable part of what they do.
When approaching this tribute project, Ernie knew that classy was the way to go, and now that I’ve seen the finished product, I can say that it has paid huge dividends. This could quite possibly be their best video since the early days of Stand By Me Live. The set is majestic without being ostentatious, the wardrobe couldn’t be more tasteful (matching blue pin-stripes), their hair is combed ( 🙂 ), and virtually all of the numbers are delivered “flat-footed” with minimal choreography.
Yet while the importance of these things cannot be stressed enough, obviously what drives the project is the songs and the music. So without further ado, let’s watch how this concert unfolds…
“Wedding Music”: The concert opens with lights down and a live band introduction playing variations on “Here Comes the Bride.” The group has taken to using this clip as an introduction for their concerts on the tour, and it works well to open up the night. “Here Comes the Bride” was chosen, of course, because of the title of the opening song.
The crowd applauds and stands when the quartet makes their appearance, and the lights go up when they begin to sing. This introduction provides a marked contrast with something like Get Away Jordan, where the guys run out on stage with big smiles and bring the microphones into place with their feet. None of that here: They just step forward and sing.
The crowd responds immediately at the beginning of Tim’s solo, and he delivers it with great confidence. Ernie nails his tag at the end just like old times with the Cats. Just a smooth performance and a natural choice for an introductory number.
At this point they moved directly to “Step Into the Water,” which was easily one of the best performances of the night. Every single member is in peak form here. Tim does some awesome improvisation even beyond what he does on the CD—the descending “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah” bass line going into the final chorus sounds exactly like George.
I mentioned that Doug and Ernie’s duet was a treat to listen to on the CD, but it’s even better to watch. The two of them together on stage are absolute vocal dynamite. They’re like sparring partners—they sharpen each other as they work together. They’ve known each other longer than any other two members of the group, and it’s obvious that they are good friends both on and off the stage. The addition of Devin on the last line of the verse then makes an awesome triple punch—love the way they draw out the word “eternally.”
The group’s trademark choreography makes a small appearance towards the end of the performance with a few hand motions. Nothing over-the-top, it just works well with the song.
Generally on their previous DVDs, Ernie has paused after two songs for a speaking segment. Here they just keep going, and next up is “Boundless Love.” My thoughts on the “boom, boom, CLAP” rhythm at the beginning remain the same, but it is admittedly a great attention-getter and draws the audience in from note one. Dianne Wilkinson said they had her hooked right away. 😛
This is a dynamic song and a dynamic arrangement, and watching all four guys work together on it is like watching a well-oiled machine. And then at the key change, everything just explodes (in a very good way!) as Ernie begins to belt it out. Moreover, the “stomping” rhythm is going away right about now, and that actually makes audience participation easier because the “clapping” rhythm comes more naturally. Ernie then takes it up yet another notch and continues to nail it, even going higher than he did with the Cathedrals. Also notable is Wayne’s piano work—it can be easy to overlook Wayne because he’s not the sort of performer who draws attention to himself, but he forms an integral part of what’s happening on stage.
When you’ve got a good thing going, keep it going, and they do so here with several encores. Everybody stands up for the first encore, and the guys keep up the energy level all the way through. This is a fantastic live number that should become a concert staple for the group. The song is an instantly recognizable classic, and it never fails to get a crowd excited and on their feet.
After eliciting a standing ovation three songs into the night without a single word spoken, Ernie pauses for a few brief words and then sings “I’m Gonna Live Forever.” Then Ernie does group introductions, and he runs through the joke about Devin that the last name “McGlamery” means “albino porcupine.” Interestingly enough, this is the only moment of the night that is even remotely corny. This project is pretty much entirely free of the standard forced humor/recycled jokes that have become part of the stereotype of gospel music. Given the venue and the occasion, this feels appropriate.
Ernie talks a little about the Stamps-Baxter school of music, George and Glen’s history there, and the group’s own recent concert for the students to set up “Old Convention Song.” Tracey Philips takes the piano, and she truly is an expert at what she does. Ernie even calls for a repeat of her intro (though I’m not sure whether he really did forget to sing the first time or had planned the repeat in advance). The instrumentation on this song was completely live, which gives the performance extra charm.
The next number, surprisingly, is “Oh What a Savior.” This song is generally placed at the end of Signature Sound concerts and videos, so the fact that it was placed fairly early in the program this time was a clue of what was coming later! Before the song, Ernie talks about his first concert with the Cathedrals, singing this song. George Younce told part of the story on The Best of the Cathedrals, but it’s fun to hear it from Ernie, partly because he adds details like the fact that Gloria “prayed the sweetest prayer for him,” but Bill didn’t pray for him at all. Tsk, tsk. 😉
Then Wayne kicks off the song on the piano, and they sing the first verse and chorus with nothing else backing them up. I really like the way Wayne handles the accompaniment here—it’s very tasteful, yet there’s a sense of coiled up energy there as well to emphasize the words “He… gave… his... life’s blood…” Ernie starts off a little breathy, but his vocal gains strength as the arrangement builds. The drums join in to punctuate the climactic moment, and he nails it, as ever, with power and practiced ease. You can hear Timmy singing “Oh yeah” under his breath at that moment. “Oh yeah” indeed! For the last chorus, the live band is still front and center, but you can hear the strings and brass soundtrack kicking in too for added drama. I really liked the fact that they started off “bare bones” with just piano, then gradually built off of that. Something else I noticed and appreciated about this rendition was that it was all on the stage—zero stacked vocals. But it still sounded great. More of this, please. As a matter of fact, I am going to go out on a limb and say that I cannot detect a single stack throughout the concert. They may have been used without my knowledge, but in that case it was done very sparingly, to the point where I for one could not hear them.
Some people might dispute the inclusion of yet another version of this song on the project, since the group has recorded it so many times before. But the night really wouldn’t have been complete without it. It never gets old, and it belonged here. (Just ask the people who were there!) And yet, it is to Ernie’s credit that he deliberately did not make it the focal point of the evening—he clearly wanted the focus to be on George and Glen.
“Wonderful Grace of Jesus”: Ernie brings Wayne onto the stage and introduces him as the producer/arranger. A humorous moment ensues when Wayne tries to give every member his note… including Timmy, which doesn’t quite work. Fortunately Timmy managed to find his note too. 😉
There’s nothing like watching a talented group sing acapella live, standing in one place, with no stacks or extra studio gloss. For this reason, I much prefer the DVD version to the CD version: The vocals sound much warmer here (but still outstanding).
In a rare moment of mischief, Timmy tugs on the shoulder of Doug’s suit-jacket during the upward modulation on the word “me.” Doug is unappreciative, which is funny to watch. Interestingly, they appear to end up in a higher key than where they end on the studio cut. The performance earned them another standing ovation.
From here they go directly into “Sinner Saved By Grace.” My thoughts on the arrangement and the vocals remain the same from my review of the CD. Doug’s solo sounded somewhat different from his studio delivery, but it was just as good in its own way. For Doug, singing seems as easy as breathing in and out. He’s such a natural on the stage, and you can always count on him for an exciting performance. I’ve nicknamed him “dependable Doug” because he never seems to have an off night. This solo was good enough to elicit applause even before the first chorus got underway.
Devin’s solo also went over well with the audience. He absolutely nails his tag on the line, “Now I live and breathe in freedom.” It’s a great experience to watch the arrangement build in excitement through the key change to the high ending. Ernie nails his note at the end very powerfully. All things considered, this performance is a definite highlight.
“Yesterday”: Ernie sets up this song by talking about how so many things have changed, even within the Cathedrals family. George, Glen and Roger are all gone, and even one of George’s daughters has passed away. Yet with all these changes, George’s own words reiterate the simple, timeless truth that “Jesus will never, ever change. Jesus is always the same.”
Devin’s step-out is even richer than on the CD, and brief as it is, it’s one of the night’s stand-out solos. The blend as a whole is just gorgeous, particularly on the last line.
While the guys sing, a slideshow plays behind them with snapshots of some of these heroes of the faith, on and off the stage. Some of the photos are recycled, but some of them are fresh, and they are all beautiful. Combining this song with these shots is very effective and only enhances the poignancy of the experience.
Watching this performance together with the slideshow, it really came home to me that this encapsulates everything I love about gospel music. There is much more going on here than just an excellent performance of a sweet song. It reminded me of a comment I read from somebody arguing that gospel music needs to be more progressive. The artists at a Homecoming he had recently attended seemed to him to be “holding onto some great moment in the past.” He said this to imply that they needed to let go of the past and “come forward” into the present.
But really, how long is the present here? Every second that passes becomes a part of the past. And if we let go of the past, exactly what are we left with? We must hold onto these “great moments.” Even as we live from day to day, looking towards the future, we must never, ever forget to turn and look back, often. As I watched this video, I felt like I was being given a window into the past, and it seemed just as close as the present—in a way, even closer. At the closing phrase, “the same,” the glorious sameness of God came into clear focus like never before… and in the middle of it all those two old men, George and Glen, sitting together and singing their hearts out to Him. In one sense, they are no longer with us, and yet thanks to God’s unchanging, unfailing love, they are with us still. He is “the same” indeed. Praise Him.
Here the group takes a brief break from Cathedrals songs and does an Influenced set. Ernie sets it up by talking about a conversation he had with George and Glen about the “good ole days” of early-morning radio shows—funny story. All the performances are enjoyable. “My Heart is a Chapel” is especially fun because the guys deliberately put a twang into their vocals to mimic that old-time radio sound. Ernie is obviously enjoying himself immensely, and the harmonies are (as usual) flawless.
Next is “Swinging On the Golden Gate,” which is best enjoyed live. Doug is in tip-top vocal form and delivers the goods. It’s also humorous to see Timmy get “knocked” on and pushed around by Ernie (they’ve done the routine at concerts, but it’s more enjoyable to see it up close). At the end, they throw in an encore of the final breakdown. This is probably the moment of the night when the guys most “cut loose,” but even so it doesn’t seem obtrusive or over-the-top. The band is in peak form here too: Kevin looks like he’s tearing it up on the electric guitar. After this number, Ernie pauses to introduce the members, including David Griffith on bass and Zak Shumate on drums. Speaking of Zak, this guy was on cloud nine all night long, and it showed. He just exudes fun and youthful energy with every move he makes. It puts a smile on my face whenever the camera cuts over to show him at work. He really adds a lot to the video—wouldn’t be the same without him. Just watch him go at it on “Boundless Love!”
But the icing on the cake is “Walk With Me.” This has become a bit of a “second-tier signature song” for Ernie, after “Oh What a Savior.” For this one, they brought out the “big gun” on the piano—Bill Gaither himself. There’s some interaction with Bill before the song, but it looks like some of it was edited out for the DVD. Eventually he sits down and begins “managing expectations” about how incredible he is going to be, inviting Wayne and Tracey to sit back and get schooled. Plus he’s sure to throw in the mandatory gospel history lesson, talking about how Hovie Lister used to direct from the piano with the Statesmen. (I’m getting deja vu, because I could have sworn he gave that same lecture on another video…) Anyway, Tracey and Wayne are unimpressed, to say the least, and partway through they give him a five and a zero respectively (on a scale of one to ten). 😆 But the performance is pure perfection, and Ernie delivers one of the best vocals of the night. Bill predicted that the crowd would go crazy, and sure enough, it got a standing ovation, good enough for an encore. Favorite moment: When Ernie picks up his microphone and starts edging towards Bill with it. “I’m following you.” Priceless! I’m still sorting out my personal top five performances from the video, but this one is a must-include regardless.
“Can He, Could He, Would He”: Remember the sousaphone? Here, we actually get to SEE it, and it’s played by none other than Wayne Haun himself! I must confess that I have a (pernicious?) desire to break into the Veggie Tales theme song whenever I watch this video. Wayne looks just like Larry the Cucumber. 😉 Tracey comes out from behind the keys to play a clarinet, which is fun to see. Devin takes the lead and makes me smile with the enthusiasm he brings to his part. At the end, the guys walk in a circle around the intrepid sousaphone player, and at the very end, the camera zooms in on some little kids who are also dancing in a circle in the front of the audience (invited to come down beforehand). It’s a very cute touch that definitely enhances the performance.
“Mexico”: This number epitomizes just how big a difference the visual element can make on a DVD when compared with a CD. When I listen to the song on the CD, all I can think about is how inherently dorky it is. But all the extra stuff that’s going on in the DVD makes the number fun and enjoyable to watch. We have Wayne playing a marimba in the back, Tracey on maracas (is there any instrument they can’t play between the two of them?) and some downright hilarious sombrero business. Obviously, everything must have been choreographed ahead of time, but it is still funny to see the guys snickering at Ernie’s pink sombrero while he asks, “What color’s mine?” Then of course he takes it off, reacts and says, “Somebody’s gonna get it.” It’s all the guys can do to get through the rest of the song without laughing. The last part of the song is inter-spliced with footage from a Cathedrals performance (with their own sombreros), and it makes for a fun side-by-side watch. Ultimately, this song ends up being sort of a parody of itself, but that’s probably the whole point.
After this number, Ernie introduces his old mentor and first boss Squire Parsons to sing his signature song, “Beulah Land.” He sets up the song by talking about the pivotal role Squire played in “grooming and polishing” him for ultimately fulfilling his dream of singing with the Cathedrals. It’s a touching moment and a classy move on Ernie’s part.
“God Delivers Again”: Great, great song to watch live. Timmy and Ernie knock their step-outs out of the park, and Wayne sparkles on the piano. They also throw in some vocal embellishments not on the studio version, like holding out the chord on the word “flee” and throwing in some “Whoa-oh-whoas” to give the chorus extra punch. This performance was encored and got an enthusiastic audience response.
Then Zak immediately kicks it off on “He Made a Change.” Some might dispute the inclusion of this song, since Signature Sound has already recorded it, but given its significance as the Cats’ last #1, it makes sense to me. How does this version compare to EHSS’s previous one? Well, the main difference is that the sound is less polished, but there’s a reason for that: They’re relying exclusively on a live band. Trading in the original cut’s slick brass and piano for an “earthier” percussion and guitar-driven sound, this version makes up in chemistry what it lacks in polish. Bits of gospel-flavored organ can be heard sprinkled throughout for added flavor. It’s a great experience to watch the band “jam out” here. This gives you a pretty good idea of how the guys and their band sound live and in concert. I can’t decide which of the two versions I prefer—each is great in its own way.
But once again, what ultimately seals it is the visuals. After an introductory chorus, Ernie pauses for a word about Cathedrals songwriters and invites Joel Lindsey and Dianne Wilkinson to stand up in the audience (and Miss Dianne, if you’re reading this…you looked great that night!) This makes for a really nice, classy moment. And since Ernie is talking about how every great quartet needs great songs, Joel’s presence is doubly appropriate given that he’s penned the group’s own best original, “Calvary Answers For Me.”
Then on the second chorus, Ernie motions the band to pull back while they sing sotto voce, and Tim’s bass line is very prominent. Some great banter ensues at this point between Tim and Ernie. The look on Timmy’s face at the end of the song is absolutely priceless! Tim generally keeps his thoughts to himself, but here he loosens up a little. As quiet as he usually is, he does have a bit of a twinkle in his eye. 😉 Another standing ovation for this performance.
Next up is “Moving Up to Gloryland,” and this is definitely one of those “better live” kind of songs because it’s just so funny to watch Ernie and everybody else do the “moo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoovin” part. And yes, I do mean everybody else. Look for special appearances from various band members and, best of all, Timmy (big crowd response on that one)! The audience itself gets a turn at the end.
One of the most moving moments of the night was when Ernie went down into the audience and introduced family members of the Cathedrals—brothers and sisters, widows, sons and daughters, and even grandsons. As people who were there will recall, a major highlight came when George Younce, Jr. offered an impromptu version of “The Laughing Song.” The resemblance to his father’s voice is quite striking—Timmy gives him a thumbs-up, from one bass to another. After rolling a clip of George himself singing the song, Ernie takes a few minutes to share some stories. He tells them very well, especially the one about how Glen drank a can of Sprite and thought he was getting a shot of caffeine (!)
Ernie then introduces the song “I Thirst” by talking about how that song held special significance for George as a former alcoholic. It’s one of the most moving songs on the project, and this performance is beautifully done. Wayne’s piano work complements the vocals perfectly.
Next is “Champion of Love.” At the beginning, an old-fashioned microphone is lowered as George Younce’s recorded voice begins the spoken introduction. This microphone is then pulled back up when his part is over. It’s an interesting bit of stage business, and for people who enjoy the song, George’s spoken intro provides a nice added touch.
Wayne of course takes the lead and handles it very well. Whether he’s writing, playing, or producing, Wayne brings a lot to the world of gospel music, but here he proves that he can sing as well. Ernie sits on the piano bench until the last chorus (per Cathedrals tradition), and the audience stands when he bursts in on the climax. Afterwards, he embraces Wayne and verbally presents him to the crowd. I look forward to hearing Wayne’s voice on more material in the future. I doubt this will be the last we hear from him.
Wayne is back at the piano for the next song, “Plan of Salvation.” What can I say? A beautiful song, and well-loved too—the crowd began applauding the moment they recognized it. Timmy’s solo is very potent, and it’s a treat to watch Kevin Williams smiling in the background as Tim sings. Ernie gives him the “OK” sign afterwards: Bravo Timmy! This is one of those quiet, hidden highlights of the project, and I already anticipate coming back to it again and again.
Then comes the focal point of the evening: “We Shall See Jesus.” Ernie talks a bit about how they had planned to “stay away from” this song, because it was Glen’s song. But as Ernie quite rightly says, that wouldn’t be what Glen himself would want. He would be the last person to want the song to die with him. A couple old photos of Devin with Glen are put up on the screen as Ernie talks about how Glen was Devin’s hero. It’s great to see how even at such a young age, Devin knew who his heroes were and was proud of it. Not every kid is that unabashed about his heroes, but Devin clearly was, and it’s beautiful to see him at twelve singing next to that great man.
Ernie tells him to “paint the picture,” and that he does. As great as this song is to listen to, it is so much more powerful to watch it unfold live on stage. Devin begins singing, and Dianne Wilkinson herself is already wiping tears away before his solo is finished. Everybody nails the second verse, and then…Devin turns around and introduces the man himself: Mr. Glen Payne. Some people thought that it might have been better or generated a bigger response if the group had chosen to sing the song without the video of Glen for the tribute. I disagree. On the tour, yes, it makes sense to let Devin carry the song. But here it was completely appropriate. And what a moment it was! I did not pre-order and get the project with Kleenex, but let’s just say that if I had… I would have been reaching for them when Glen came on screen. And it’s not just seeing Glen, it’s seeing his wife and family in tears as he sings. I defy anybody to watch this and not be deeply moved. Even Devin is shedding tears as he turns away from the screen.
Glen stays with them through the remainder of the song, and it’s hard to describe just how powerful that is. When people lose a loved one today, too many of them turn to empty means of comfort like letter-writing, or worse, to the occult, to give themselves a feeling of communication with the person. Yet Glen’s presence through video with the group as they sing provides a powerful reminder of the communion of saints without any such desperate measures. We as Christians do not need to convince ourselves that Glen is alive—we know that he is alive. He was with the group that night in more ways than one. Yes, we will see him again one day, but in the meanwhile, we have the assurance that he is living still.
At the actual concert, there were a couple more numbers at this point: a medley around the piano and a video of George and Glen singing “Search Me.” However, “We Shall See Jesus” was such a climactic high point of the evening that it was a smart pacing decision to cut those other songs and make it the penultimate song on the DVD. My only disappointment is that the Gaither medley was not at least included as a bonus feature—that was one number I had been looking forward to seeing. Ah well.
Ernie simply announces the final song by saying that George always told him to “leave ’em happy,” and that’s what they’re going to do. Without further ado, they launch into that wonderful classic, “This Ole House.” Timmy promised me not to goof on this one a few weeks before the taping, and of course he didn’t. (Incidentally, it was Timmy’s solid, rich tones that first drew my attention to this group. I just wanted to hear more of that bass.) A flawless performance, and the crowd stood throughout. Obviously Tim steals the show, but Doug’s step-outs are also spot-on. Zak gives it his all on the drums and does a magnificent job. Ernie takes it home and knocks the last note all the way into left field. This is one of the performances that most makes me wish I had been there to see it in person. The Cathedrals used it to open their concerts, but it works just as well in its own way as a finale—a barn-burner in the truest sense.
Finally, “Boundless Love” is reprised, which is the perfect way to cap off the evening. The quartet bows and takes their leave, leaving a very happy audience indeed.
Minor quibbles about the song selection aside, it’s hard to see how this DVD could have been any better. I might have wanted more B-roll and perhaps some more bonus features (a performance of “Life Will Be Sweeter” is the only bonus on the video), but other than that…terrific. On their Gospel Music Today interview at the NQC, Ernie said that a lot of the group’s high energy has just evolved naturally from their personalities. However, I appreciate the fact that they reined in some of that ebullience for this tribute project, out of respect for the classic style of George and Glen. This gives the DVD a sophisticated feel that would just be lacking otherwise. Wherever Ernie chooses to take the group in the years to come, it would be great to see them continue in this vein, with this style—still bringing a high energy to the table, but with balance and restraint. Yes, obviously that look was right to honor the Cathedrals, but there is a true sense in which this is the real Signature Sound too. And given their increasingly more classic-styled wardrobe since the Get Away Jordan era, it leads one to wonder (hope?) whether perhaps there is a trip to the local Salvation Army headquarters in their near future, at which point the two-toned penguin shoes, striped socks, and assorted other “colorful” accouterments will mysteriously and permanently disappear. (Tongue-in-cheek…kinda. But keep the matching suits. :-P)
At the end of the day, Ernie can be very proud of this project, not only as the master-mind behind its conception but as one of the voices that brought it to life. He was in outstandingly good form on the night this video was taped, and you could almost see him rediscovering his youth as he sang. There was an extra vigor and strength to his singing that really recalled those “glory years” with the Cathedrals. He held nothing back, song after song, and he nailed it every time. This night should go down as a personal tour de force for him. To say that he has “still got it” would be an understatement. His emcee work that night was also very classy and tasteful—at each point he said exactly what needed to be said, no more, no less.
Bottom line: The CD was strong enough for a 4.5 star rating, but it cannot compare to the live experience. These performances are so strong, and the DVD is so beautifully edited, that I would recommend it over and above the studio project. If possible, get both, but if you can only get one, make it the video. You will not be sorry.