The day started with a Hoppers’ Chapel service. Two closing songs in the set particularly stood out: “I’ve Come Too Far,” which had a powerful acapella (or perhaps minimalistic keyboard-only) encore, and “Yes, I Am,” for which they brought on stage Benjamin, a young black teen they had been helping through music school. Benjamin traded off solo lines with Dean toward the end, knocking it out of the park.
Two highlights from the Daywind Radio DJ’s event were a standing-ovation rendition of “Under His Wings” by Sisters and a surprisingly strong piano-and-vocals version of “There is a Fountain” by Marshall Hall. Yes, Hall was playing the piano while he sang, and yes, he did a great job. Unlike other groups, whose main objective appeared to be to get the DJs to connect with a new single, these two artists had the objective of reintroducing themselves as an artist to the DJs, and both succeeded brilliantly.
As I was in the media room taking an hour or more to prepare and post the videos, I overheard a showcase in the next room. Most memorable moment: Tim Lovelace playing air piano. Line of the routine: He started taking requests to play on air piano, and a lady in the audience brought the house down by requesting “Silent Night.”
I stopped by the “Fire in the Choir” event for a little while, between other appointments. The Greenes delivered a strong rendition of a song whose name I cannot remember, and the Perrys brought the house down with “If You Knew Him.”
I had other things going during the Sarah Palin showcase—I made the drive to Louisville to hear singing, after all, even if I do agree with a politician’s views—but I did walk from one end of the Freedom Hall balcony to the other on my way from my car to the other side, and noticed two points on the way. First, there was hope she would be a big draw, but I am fairly certain that Remember the Music (the Cathedrals reunion) last year drew 5%-10% more, and I know the final Gaither Vocal Band showcase with Guy Penrod drew 25%-30% more. For all three, the room was divided in half, and for all three, the floor was full. For Palin, the lower third of (half of) the balcony was full; for the Cathedrals reunion, it was half to two thirds full; and, for that particular GVB showcase (which I reference since the two since with Michael English have drawn fewer), I had to go to the second or third to the highest nosebleed row to find a seat.
Second, by all accounts, she did a brilliant job connecting with the audience on a faith level. That said, her efforts to connect on a music level fell flat. Sue C. Smith makes several salient points here, to which I would add that, as I was passing through, she mentioned being heavily influenced by Christian music while growing up, “particularly Amy Grant when she was a teenager.” [EDIT, 6/18/12: Broken link removed.] That’s not exactly the best name to drop at this venue.
One evening non-mainstage highlight was a conversation with a precious older lady who came by the Triumphant Quartet to rest at the same time I did. It seemed she wanted someone to talk to, so I set aside plans to move along elsewhere. And I wasn’t sorry I did: It turned out that this was her forty-eighth National Quartet Convention, and she had a treasure trove of memories from previous conventions.
Evening mainstage highlights:
- The two opening groups were the Diplomats and the Freemans. Both turned what could have been average sets into strong sets through live four-piece bands. The Diplomats’ strongest number was their closing up-tempo song, “Joy Comes in the Morning,” while the Freemans’ new, Dianne Wilkinson-penned radio single, “The Altar, the Father and the Son” was the strongest of their set.
- Other commentators can say what they will, but I found the Sisters/Booth Brothers collaboration on “Brothers and Sisters” to be brilliant execution of a better-than-average song.
- The Chuck Wagon Gang sang three songs, “Singing as I Go,” “When He Calls, I’ll Fly Away,” and “Someone to Talk To.” Dave Emery transitioned smoothly through audio issues before the first song—his guitar was not being amplified—and the middle song was a standout straight-ahead rendition of a song that has rarely been done as written in years. (Make no mistake, the Gold City rendition is magnificent, but it was nice to step decades back in time and hear it as written).
- The Ball Brothers made their first main-stage appearance. Their harmonies are so tight that there are points where they have four different parts in the ensemble without a bass singer.
- By all accounts, the Collingsworth Family set was one of the evening’s standout sets. A new acapella rendition of “Take Time to Be Holy” was strong, made even stronger by Phil Sr. adding a bass part. The group’s harmonies were already full, and this makes them even fuller. Kim, Brooklyn, and Courtney’s delivery of “Fear Not Tomorrow” got a standing ovation from the floor. (The seats in the balcony are so tight and hard to get in and out of that people in the balcony rarely stand). Kim’s piano solo on “My Tribute,” though, got a rousing standing ovation from floor and balcony alike—the ovation must have lasted over a minute.
- The Booth Brothers had a wide-ranging set, everything from uptempo (“I See Grace”) to Southern Gospel samba (“All Over the World”) to big ballad (“Then I Met the Master”)—the latter song receiving another of the evening’s strongest and longest ovations.
- Brian Free & Assurance raised a few eyebrows by closing their set with two slow songs, “Save Me a Seat at the Table” and the title track of their new project, “Never Walk Alone.” Totally apart from the fact that they strike me as being at their best with that style of song, it was a perfect fit for where they are personally: Bass singer Jeremy Lile, who sang the first song, is marking the one-year anniversary of the passing of his father/grandfather (I’ve heard both and am not entirely clear on the point), while tenor Brian Free, featured on the second, is facing the likely imminent passing of his own father. So what if they didn’t do what virtually every other group did, close with a rousing uptempo song or a big ballad? A change of pace, especially this well executed, is refreshingly delightful.
- Greater Vision’s set was another that drew some criticism for defying conventions. After a fun transition from a fifteen-year-old video of Greater Vision (with Rodney Griffin, Gerald Wolfe, and Chris Allman) singing “I’m Too Near Home” setting up the newly returned Allman leading a current rendition of the song, and a pleasingly mellow version of “You Were Faithful Yesterday,” Wolfe slowed down the pace for a bit. He introduced a couple who came from Spain and enjoyed convention so much that they bought tickets for hotel staff. He then led the audience in a sing-a-long version of “I Will Serve Thee,” before closing with a rousing rendition of the Christmas song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” And for all the talk about clunky and awkward transitions last night, Gerald Wolfe smoothly answered those objections before they were made by telling a story about a lady who got on his case for singing Christmas music outside of December, until he got her thinking and admitting that we don’t know when Christ was born, so there is no reason to restrict Christmas music to one month of the year.
- Michael Booth’s introduction to the Booth Brothers deserves a bullet point of its own. Literally. As he was about to bring the group on stage, there was a huge audio glitch that sounded like a cannon. He reacted by dramatically falling over and pretending to have been shot. He stayed there until someone came up from off stage, at which point he started waving his feet in the air.
- Somehow, Mark Trammell managed to transition from that to starting with a slow rendition of “Gentle Shepherd” with harmonies so tight that they came incredibly close to perfection. After a brass-heavy rendition of “Testimony,” the current single, the set’s two highlights were Pat Barker imitating Big Chief Wetherington on “I Wanna Know” and Mark Trammell delivering a monumental rendition of the Cathedrals classic “It’s Almost Over.”
- The Perrys sang two songs off of their new project, Blue Skies, “Blue Skies Coming” and “His Love Lights the Way.” Between the two, they did a perennial favorite from Look No Further, “I Know it Was the Blood.” Tracy Stuffle joined them on stage for “His Blood Lights the Way,” and then introduced the closing number, “If You Knew Him,” which received such a strong response that the audience had started rising to their feet by the end of the bridge.