When I first heard that the Vocal Band was going to record an all hymns album, I was kind of excited. Excited, because I love hymns. I bought my album on itunes the day it came out, which is three days ago at the time of this writing.
Let me take you through some of these songs. The album opens with ‘Amazing Grace;’ we all know that song. A song we could safely dub ‘the hymn of hymns’. A hymn that lends its melody to a variety of styles. We’ve heard it done in a blues setting, we’ve heard it as country as corn, and with great virtuosity by big orchestras. Choirs have stood firm belting out its potent message. When I heard the first few bars of the Vocal Band’s cut of this classic, I thought, ‘oh nooooo!’ Celtic sounds, somewhat medieval….Irish, Scottish, in short – just plain creepy! A fiddle…of course….a acoustic guitar…mandolin…and very old drums! Michael sings lead in the first verse, David is above him; where else would he be? David sings in a different lead, not really in harmony and yet in harmony. Mark Lowry has such a beautiful voice and sings the second verse, like silk, rich in texture, delicate and the feel! What a great version if you over-look the primitive intro and the violin theme throughout the song. Nevertheless a great addition to the endless library of ‘Amazing Grace’ recordings, and it the last few bars of this truly majestic rendition you’ll hear a flute playing a few bars of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”….neatly tucked away…lovely!
Next on the album is one of my favorite hymns: ’God Leads Us Along,’ written in 1903 by G.A. Young which is the anthem of dependency! We need a guide through this life into the next and that’s what this beautiful song is all about. The song starts with a fiddle intro and why wouldn’t it? A fiddle and strumming rhythm guitar, an easy going pace, no rush! These words and melody are way too beautiful to race through. Bill Gaither sings the first verse, and man, that guy can still sing if he puts his mind to it! Someone who also can still sing like he means it, is Michael English! This is by far the best Michael has sounded since he joined the Vocal Band for the second time! This guy is soooo back! He sings this third verse.
‘Away from the mire, and away from the clay,God leads His dear children along; Away up in glory, eternity’s day, God leads His dear children along’.
What a loss for the group Michael is! Mark Lowry is great, sure, but he is way to confined in a group setting. He is an amazing singer who should be replaced by a chorus! A showman that demands attention…a diva? I don’t know……but if he is it’s probably in a classy good way. Anyway I hate to see Michael leave. But I wish him all the best, because if there one guy I wish the best of the best for, it’s Michael. If you overlook the fiddle and the old country folk music atmosphere at the beginning, the fiddle suddenly sounds like a violin, and subtle hints of heaven embraces the melody. Probably my favorite version of this Hymn.
‘Till The Storm Passes By;’ this is a song that can’t go wrong with these guys! What a great harmony they have. Very dignified homage to Mosie Lister. Wes Hampton takes the solo; great voice and Mr. Nice guy all around. Nice intricate harmonies; superb. Great track, beautiful arrangement!
It came to my attention that big piano introductions seem out of style all of a sudden. ”Lord, I’m Coming Home” is opened by a simple piano theme: just the high notes, no chords. Michael English comes in with ‘I’ve wandered far, away from God…” This guy is just built for this kind of song. Gaither takes the second verse and does it with great style. His voice has something joyful and at the same time melancholic. The second the ensemble breaks into the chorus you feel the discharge of relief through belief.
“Redeemed” is a wonderful hymn: lovely melody, great lyrics and here comes Gaither Fiddle Band again. Or should I say the St.Patrick Vocal Band? Again an old country arrangement. David Phelps is the lead character in this ‘play’ of a song. It’s theatrical, it’s awful. Awfully good in spite of the freaking flutes and fiddles. But monologues aren’t the most popular genre in the ‘theatre-world;’ this is a harmony dialogue. The greatness of this group overshadows a hideous track, not as in badly played or poorly arranged – that’s all top-notch. It’s just not my kind of music. Although I respect its historical contribution to modern music, Celtic isn’t my thing; it’s too Mel Gibson, too gray, too Conan O’Brian, too cold, and way too wet!
Jim Hamill held the title to best interpreter of the song “Love Lifted Me.” Now, I’m still biased to Jim Hamill’s cut. But this version is also very good and I mean very good. Not gonna say much more about it. Only this: Michael English owns this song! The background vocals are a little too strong in the mix. On the previous GVB albums of this specific line-up, I felt that the background vocals were too far down in the mix, but on this record they overdid it a tad. It’s on the edge of being annoying and they demand too much attention. But same with the fiddles; these guys sound so good together it makes you overlook it. Angie Primm, Gayle Mayes and my buddy Chip Davis provide additional background vocals on this already crowded tune. There is so much going on, I love it!
“More of You.” When did that Gaither tune become a hymn? Mark Lowry carries tunes like these so well. Whoever made the vocal arrangement left nothing out, these guys are having fun. It sounds kind of experimental, or improvised. They sometimes take it a little too far, but their returns are so clever. A very simple and otherwise really boring song is suddenly made intriguing.
George Bennard’s “Old Rugged Cross” begins with faint strumming on an acoustic guitar. Al Green’s version of this song was and still is my favorite one, however this is the best vocal group rendition. “The Old Rugged Cross” has always been a favorite of mine…ever since my childhood days.
A classical sounding piano introduction opens the next tune, the ivory is quickly joined by a full band. Once the guys break into the chorus of ‘My Faith Still Holds” you realize you’re listening to a very special rendition. Phelps is the dominant voice in the chorus, great cascading harmony lines fill the holes that you never realized were there before. Wes Hampton takes the first verse and is solid as always. As Wes finishes his verse with the words ‘I found reality in simple trust,’ he ends it small and intimate. Wes doesn’t go out with a bang, but goes out quietly. As if he was respectfully bowing to make room for the most incredible Michael English feature in years! The chorus that follows is Michael’s tour de force of this decade, is nothing short of harmony Walhalla! This is my favorite song on the entire album!
The problem with making a hymn album is that it’s usually one funeral march after another. And this is no exception, except for Albert Brumley’s ‘I’ll Fly Away’. English and Phelps take the verses, this truly is a Vocal Band, and it’s all good.
Fanny Crosby wrote “Pass Me Not Savior” this is my favorite hymns of all time; love it. Love Fanny Crosby. She is one of the people I want to meet in Heaven. So it’s Fanny, Glen Payne, George Younce, Smitty Gatlin, Jim Hamill, Danny Gaither, Elvis, my grandfather, and my grandmother that I never knew on this earth I want to meet up there. I’m so glad Michael sings this one too! Michael is featured most on the album, Mark next, and the rest of the guys took the backseat, but behaved very nice during the ride.
I know that “My Faith Still Holds” is also a remake of a GVB song, they did it on their 1984 album “New Point of Few” and that is a superb rendition too. But why in the world tackle ‘At The Cross’ again? With the exact same arrangement. I don’t get it. Why didn’t they cut their teeth on ‘How Great Thou Art’? That would have put a bow round this already pleasant surprise when they had recorded the Stuart K. Hine tune.
This was it boys and girls, no more Michael and Mark with the Vocal Band. Adam Crabb and Todd Suttles have a shot at it. I’m very excited about Todd Suttles, he can bring a lot to the Vocal Band. Adam will suffice while he’s there, but Suttles is bound to give them something special. Mark my words. In my opinion the all-star five man configuration featured on this recording finally made an album that will be in heavy rotation. (Does anything rotate in an iPhone?) Well it’s just a figure of speech. Buy this album if you haven’t yet. It is the best this line-up made!
God Leads Us Along
‘Til The Storm Passes By
Lord, I’m Coming Home
Love Lifted Me
More Of You
The Old Rugged Cross
My Faith Still Holds
I’ll Fly Away
Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior
At The Cross
(credits) Kelly Back Guitar (Acoustic),Guitar (Electric) Mark Capps Engineer, Mixing, Overdub Engineer, Vocal Engineer Jared Clament Assistant Engineer Chip Davis Vocals (Background) Gaither Vocal Band Arranger, Primary Artist, Vocals (Background) Bill Gaither Executive Producer, Producer Aubrey Haynie Fiddle, Mandolin Matthew Holt Piano Daniel Howell Digital Editing, Overdub Engineer, Vocal Engineer Ronn Huff Arranger Ben Isaacs Bass, Digital Editing, Engineer, Mixing, Overdub Engineer, Producer, Vocal Engineer, Vocals (Background) Andy Leftwitch Fiddle, Mandolin Brent Mason Guitar (Electric) Russell Mauldin String Arrangements Gale Mayes Vocals (Background) Andrew Mendelson Mastering Gordon Mote Organ Duncan Mullins Bass David Phelps Producer Angie Primm Vocals (Background) Greg Ritchie Drums, Percussion Bryan Sutton Guitar (Acoustic) Jeff Taylor Accordion, Piano Kevin Williams Guitar (Acoustic)
Find this and other blogs by Auke Bijlsma here: http://vintage1966.me/2014/03/08/review-gaither-vocal-band-hymns/
By Auke Bijlsma