CD / DVD Review: “Cape Coral Live!” (Blackwood Brothers)

Blackwood Brothers - Cape Coral Live!In 2005, James Blackwood’s son Jimmy, himself a long-time member of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet (1969-86), brought the group name back to Southern Gospel. With only one change–the original baritone leaving, and pianist Brad White also taking on baritone duties–the group has kept the same lineup over the past four years.

During that time, they have quietly but steadily been building (re-building?) a national fan base. National isn’t just a figure of speech, either, as they routinely make trips through states rarely frequented by Southern Gospel groups–Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arizona among them.

Although they have yet to make a recording of new songs, they released a hymns recording (reviewed here) about a year ago. This live CD/DVD, the lineup’s second recording, features mostly classic Blackwood Brothers songs.

Group leader Jimmy Blackwood turns in strong performances on “I Want to Be More Like Jesus” and “Learning to Lean.” Brad White’s piano abilities shine on “I’m Feeling Fine” and “I’ll Fly Away.” Tenor Wayne Little is featured on two of the most-recorded songs in Southern Gospel music, “The Lighthouse” and “Oh, What a Savior,” while bass Randy Byrd takes the lead on a number from the classic Blackwood Brothers repertoire, “I Get Happy.”

The DVD includes several songs that did not make it onto the CD. These are “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart” (a Brad White piano solo), “I’ll Meet You in the Morning” (the concert closer) and “Oh, Say But I’m Glad.” The omission of “Oh, Say But I’m Glad” may be because the song was released on the Blackwood Brothers’ Rock of Ages hymns project, and perhaps the group did not want to have the same song on both projects by the current lineup. But the omission of the other two is slightly more surprising, since they were among the most enjoyable selections on the DVD.

Most of the songs on the project are accompanied solely by piano, live on some tracks and from a soundtrack on others.

Though the Blackwood Brothers do not forge new ground musically on this project, their arrangements and delivery of these classic songs in our genre leave no question that this is a group worthy of the Blackwood Brothers name.

Available from: The Blackwood Brothers.

Rating: Recommended.

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DVD Review: “Above and Beyond” (Liberty Quartet)

Above and BeyondAfter the high rating I gave Liberty Quartet’s Timeless Treasured Hymns 2 project late last year, I have been curious to hear what they sounded like in a live concert setting. But since they tour almost exclusively on the West Coast, catching them in person hasn’t been feasible. So I did the next-best thing, watching their most recent DVD, Above and Beyond.

Since the group tours an area off the beaten path in our genre, it would probably be tempting to rely on the standard Southern Gospel jokes. But the group uses mostly original material, along with a few old standards, such as “old people like old music.” But even that line gets a unique twist, when baritone Doran Ritchey chides emcee/bass Royce Mitchell and tells him to apologize. Mitchell says, “I’m sorry–you’re old”–to another round of laughter.

This taping took place before Timeless Treasured Hymns 2 was released, and doesn’t contain any of the songs from that project. Most of the songs from There’s a Testimony, the group’s most recent project of new songs, are included. Interestingly, that project’s strongest ballad, “Near to the Heart of God,” is not one of the songs included. But “Glorious Tomorrow,” “Freedom,” and “I’m His” did make it onto the video.

The project also includes three songs each from their two previous projects. “Jericho Road,” “Walk Talk and Sing,” and “This World is Not My Home” come from Old Time Gospel Songs, Vol. 1. Meanwhile, Do You Know Him? (2005) is represented by its three strongest songs, “Wonder of His Love,” “Contagious,” and “He Had to Hold to Calvary.” The latter song is a powerful ballad; both the song and lead singer Dan Gilbert’s delivery are reminiscent of a big Kingdom Heirs/Arthur Rice anthem.

This group’s live presentation is on par with Southern Gospel’s biggest (non-Gaither) acts. The only thing holding them back from greater recognition in the genre is the fact that they tour the West Coast, where comparatively few of the Southern Gospel powers-that-be (and fans) can hear them for themselves.

Rating: Recommended.

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CD Review: “Together” (Gaither Vocal Band and Ernie Haase & Signature Sound)

Together - Gaither Vocal Band and Ernie Haase and Signature SoundWhile I did feature an interview with Doug Anderson, Ryan Seaton, and Tim Duncan when the Together CD/DVD was released, I’ve been admittedly tardy on posting my thoughts on the product itself.

First, the basics: The CD contains fifteen songs; the DVD contains twenty-three (plus two bonus tracks). The CD is a studio project where both groups sing together on every song; on the DVD, which was recorded live, fourteen of the fifteen songs from the CD are performed live. (The only one that’s not, “Oh, What a Time,” was recorded by both groups together on Signature Sound’s self-titled DVD.) In addition to the songs performed together, each group does two on its own, Gordon Mote does a solo, and the groups do a few songs together not included on the CD.

If you can purchase only one of the two, purchase the DVD. While the CD has a fairly low proportion of uptempo songs (5 or 6 out of 15), the DVD has enough other fast songs, comedy, and special effects to make the end result stronger.

One of the CD/DVD highlights is the new arrangement of “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” Unlike most of the other songs on the project, this song has not to my knowledge been done before by either group or in the Homecoming Series.

“Blow the Trumpet in Zion” was done on Israel Homecoming (2005), but as a choral selection, not featuring any group. If you are one of the many Southern Gospel fans currently in a church that sings Praise and Worship music, and your mind has sometimes drifted during worship service to wondering what an Integrity / Hosanna! praise chorus would sound like if done by a quartet, with a solid bass part, this song should grab your attention. Throw in the Israeli feel on the instrumentation, and this song is beyond doubt the most unique song on the project.

A fan of traditional Southern Gospel music will probably find “Heaven’s Joy Awaits” the most interesting segment of the DVD. When Bill Gaither announces that the next song will be “out of the Southern singing convention genre,” he is greeted by dead silence from an otherwise enthusiastic audience. He does get a laugh for his recovery, when he says, “I can kinda sense the excitement building in the room.” But then he walks the audience through how a convention song is structured, adding one part at a time. By the time he actually launches the track, thanks in part to the demonstration and in part to the comedic contributions of Kevin Williams and Rory Rigdon, he has completely won the audience over. By the end of the song, audience reaction demands three or four encores; counting the introductory section with the demonstration of the different parts, the DVD version of this song ends up clocking in at approximately twelve minutes.

Somehow Gaither managed to take a song in a style that got no enthusiasm when announced to the song that got the biggest audience response all evening. Throughout his career, Gaither has always had an affection for classic Southern Gospel songs. While he has experimented with different sounds throughout his career, often with notable success, he has never forgotten the style of music that got him hooked.

The DVD closes with “These are They,” a song I consider to be the project’s strongest big ballad. Both groups sing the song together, with solos by Doug Anderson, Marshall Hall, Wes Hampton, and Guy Penrod. Oddly enough, Hampton (the Gaither Vocal Band tenor) has a verse in a lower key than Penrod’s verse, the climax of the song. Penrod demonstrates a remarkable range for a lead singer, singing high C with a lead singer’s voice quality. No matter who may fill the tenor and baritone slots, the Gaither Vocal Band will be a powerhouse group for as long as Penrod is a member.

The CD and DVD are top-notch products. Nobody knows what the future may hold for Southern Gospel, or whether the genre will ever see the same level of national exposure that it has seen through the Homecoming Series. But whatever the future may hold, for now at least, Southern Gospel can be proud that it still has a Gaither.

CD rating: Recommended.
DVD rating: Highly Recommended.

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DVD review: “NQC 2006″ (Various Artists)

As I mentioned in my last DVD review, I like to start a DVD by watching the extras. In this case, the extras were the highlight. They included features from various showcases, including the bass showcase. The only complete song included here was a bass quartet consisting of Gene McDonald on tenor, Eric Bennett on lead, Jeff Chapman on baritone, and Mike Holcomb on bass singing “Boundless Love.” A few lines are sung by various combinations before they end up with this one. Eric Bennett is actually a very solid lead, with a moderately high range. He must have one of the widest usable ranges in Southern Gospel music today.

The main part of the DVD starts with Brian Free and Assurance performing “The Coming of the King,” a single from their most recent project, It’s So God. The song definitely goes over well live, but perhaps the main long-term value of the performance is that since Ricky Free has announced his imminent departure from the group, this could well be his final video appearance with the group.

The Whisnants come second, performing their hit song “New Day Dawning.”

Greater Vision comes third, performing their catchy song “Paid in Full Through Jesus, Amen.” This was the song I thought should win song of the year, and even though it didn’t win, it is the best song Greater Vision has released in some time. Greater Vision is a good group to appear on videos; Wolfe’s gestures and Griffin’s facial expressions translate well into the video medium. Other groups’ facial gestures, perhaps intended to be evident even to those in the back of an audience, seem overdone in a video setting, but Greater Vision’s seem well-done without being too much.

The pace slows for the Florida Boys’ rendition of the classic song “For God So Loved.” The song features Josh Garner, and is a different song than the song Brian Free introduced.

The Reggie Sadler family comes next, performing “The Real Thing.” I haven’t quite figured why they typically make the NQC highlights DVD in place of groups like the Kingsmen and the Dixie Echoes, but the group is definitely a crowd pleaser.

Gold City sings a song from their recent progressive album release, “I’m Rich.” The song features Jonathan Wilburn’s blues-tinged vocals. For much of the song, bass Aaron McCune appears to be much farther down in the mix than one would typically expect Gold City, at least in their glory days.

The Perrys’ rendition of “Damascus Road” is easily one of the highlights of the DVD for me, and it’s not just because I like their music. This is the video debut of their new lineup, with Joseph Habedank on lead and Nick Trammell on baritone. Habedank’s voice is quite similar to former lead singer Loren Harris’s voice, although it doesn’t have the harsh, almost grating edge that characterized Harris’s distinctive stylings. I, for one, prefer Habedank’s voice, and I feel that the group has taken a step up with the change. If they can just find suitable material to keep pace with their recent recordings, they will continue as one of the best groups out there, without missing a beat. Habedank’s exuberance and Trammell’s apparently shy personality actually go together well on stage.

David Hester, bass for the Dove Brothers, is featured on “One More Miracle.” Few bass singers attempt introducing ballads, and even fewer singers who sing as low as Hester try it. But Hester does it, and does it well.

The first video appearance of the new vocal lineup of the Palmetto State Quartet follows, with new bass Burman Porter and new tenor Wesley Smith. Smith could perhaps be called the antithesis of Ernie Haase; Haase projects his voice so far that he often lowers his microphone to his chest, while Smith holds his microphone closer to his mouth than many bass singers.

The Booth Brothers perform “He Said it All.” The song goes over well.

The Kingdom Heirs feature Arthur Rice singing a high lead and Jeff Chapman on some very low bass singing on their song “God’s Word.”

The Talley Trio performs “Mountain Mover”; they are followed by the Crabb Family singing “The Cross.” The Hoppers also perform “Waitin’ For My Ride” before Legacy Five closes the project with their song “I Found Grace,” a hit for the group in 2003, five years ago.

This is a video of highlights; these performances did not immediately follow one another. A crowd shot smooths the transition between the songs.

While I tend to enjoy complete concerts more than DVD compilations, this is certainly one of the best Southern Gospel compilations out there, probably only exceeded in production quality by the Gaither productions.

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DVD Review: “Get Away Jordan” (Signature Sound)

Last Friday, I reviewed Signature Sound’s Get Away Jordan CD. Today, let’s look at the accompanying DVD.

For some reason, whenever I view a DVD, I have a habit of starting with the extras. The DVD lists six extras. The first is a comedic skit introducing the video. The second is an introduction of new Homecoming / Gaither Vocal Band pianist Gordon Mote, capped by an exchange between Bill Gaither and Gordon Mote. The third is an introduction of the musicians on the record. Since it evidently got cut from the DVD, it was a nice touch to include it in the extras. The fourth extra, a photo shoot in the midst of the concert, was also evidently cut from the DVD. During the taping of this DVD, Signature Sound recorded “Stand By Me.” Though the song did not make the cut into the main part of the DVD, it is included here as the fifth extra. The complete audio track is included, while the video track is interspersed with little children doing Signature Sound moves on the song. The highlight is when Bill Gaither joins Signature Sound for some choreography at the end of the song. The sixth extra is of outtakes, most memorably a botched intro to their song “Someday.” There is also a seventh (hidden) bonus track, reached by advancing forward during the sixth track. Without providing any spoilers, I’ll just say that it has to do with Signature Sound, Bill Gaither, and a bear.

The DVD intro and extras are in widescreen, but the concert itself is not. On some computer DVD players, the transition creates a distorted image for the concert that can only be avoided if the viewer takes the slightly irritating steps of switching between full-screen and a smaller window every time the concert starts.

Like the CD, the DVD starts with “Someday.” The song has a few choreography moves, which are not particularly distracting and, in fact, enhance the song.

The second song, “He’s My Guide,” starts off with an introduction that (for some reason) reminds me of their introduction to “Glory to God in the Highest.” The song features lead singer Ryan Seaton and bass Tim Duncan. Again, the song has a few choreographed moves, especially at the end, but the focus is on the singing.

Tim Duncan and Ryan Seaton are featured on the third song, the Statesmen classic “Our Debts Will Be Paid.” Ryan is finally coming into his own as a lead singer; on previous recordings, Doug Anderson had carried many solos a lead singer would often handle in addition to his baritone solos, but on this recording, Ryan’s share of solos is more in line with the amount typically expected out of a lead singer.

The classic Bill Gaither song “Lovest Thou Me” is recorded without choreography. Signature Sound just stands flatfooted and sings as well as any other group out there.

When Signature Sound was new, one of their first songs with some choreography was “Dry Bones.” Now nicknamed “Dem Bones,” this DVD marks its reintroduction to their concerts, this time as a comedy. Roy Webb sings several words at various parts of the song, mainly for comedic effect. The lighting on this song is also worthy of comment; during Ernie Haase and Roy Webb’s exchanges, the lighting seems to be carefully planned, instead of the typical treatment of lighting during conversations as an afterthought.

Signature Sound brings back a popular Cathedrals song, “He Made a Change,” featuring Tim Duncan, before doing their song “Happy Birthday, Anniversary Too.”

The Ball Brothers perform one song, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” Their brief performance does exactly what it was intended to do–leave the watcher wishing for something more extensive. The Ball Brothers intend to release a DVD this year, so fans should be able to see a more extended concert soon.

Signature Sound returns for a set of three songs – “It is Done,” “Pray for Me,” and “Get Away Jordan.” Of the three, I consider “It is Done” the highlight, though obviously the black-gospel-influenced rendition of “Get Away Jordan” is also well received.

The Gaither Vocal Band appears for three songs, “Search Me Lord,” “Home,” and “He Touched Me.” Signature Sound joins the Vocal Band for the final song, and the groups announce an upcoming video taping with the two groups performing songs together.

The video then cuts away from the concert for the song “John in the Jordan.” The taping is in front of a river. The sound is so similar to the CD track that I can’t help but wonder if Signature Sound sang along with the track from the CD, and a sound engineer dubbed river sounds in.

The video cuts back to the concert for three patriotic songs, “I Pledge My Allegiance” and “Star Spangled Banner,” and “God Bless America.” “I Pledge My Allegiance” brings the audience to its feet before the final chorus comes around, and is perhaps the highlight of the evening.

Tim Duncan is featured on “What God Says.” His vocals on this song are more full and richer than on the original studio version.

“Until We Fly Away” features Signature Sound singing the verses with their backs to the audience, preparing the listener for special video effects accenting the words “fly away” in the chorus.

The concert closes, as most Signature Sound concerts do, with Haase performing “Oh What a Savior,” and the group leaving the stage before returning for a brief encore (this time of “Get Away Jordan.”)

The DVD contains several classic Southern Gospel songs. Many watchers have described it as pushing the edges of being Southern Gospel. I think these comments mainly derive from the “Happy Birthday Anniversary Too” song, which is clearly a novelty song that can be skipped if one desires. With the exception of that song, this project is clearly Southern Gospel quartet music, and, may I add, Southern Gospel quartet music like few others can sing it.

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