Daniel Amos goes back to the future backwards with “Vox Humana” re-release

A few years ago, Daniel Amos bandleader Terry Taylor commented on his band’s work from the early and mid-1980s, saying, “When I look back to the old songs and the old catalog, some of the stuff is too mired, musically and sonically speaking, in the trendiness of the time; that new wave thing. The only record in my opinion that works well that’s new wave-ish is Vox Humana, and the reason it does is because it’s a joke on itself; it’s a sci-fi joke. It’s a serious record on many levels, but it takes that form and brings it back around on itself so you can listen to it and realize it’s conceptual, and it uses a synthesizer thing to do a ‘50s sci-fi B-movie.”

The aforementioned 1984’s Vox Humana has now received a deluxe reissue treatment. The two disc set features both the original album remastered and a plethora of previously unreleased studio tracks plus alternate mixes, recordings, and one live track.Focusing on the original album, the increase in punch and clarity on the remastered disc is tremendous. Earlier issues of Vox Humana were thin-sounding and in some cases plagued with incorrect timing blocks making songs, when selected individually, start well into the track instead of the actual beginning. Despite this, bootleg copies of the disc frequently appeared on assorted online stores, desperate fans snapping them up as the original CD was well nigh impossible to find at any price.

With quality assurance now an integral element of the Vox Humana listening experience, the next question is how well does the record hold up after thirty-two years. Odd as it may seem, the answer is simultaneously quite well and not very well at all. On the down side, the synth drums prominent throughout are painfully dated, and songs such as “Dance Stop,” designed for live audience interaction, make for uninteresting listening after the fact. Yet even with these drawbacks, Taylor’s gift for melody and biting lyrics shines through, making Vox Humana far more than a nostalgia trip.

Like much of Taylor’s 1980s work, Vox Humana is overall not inaccurately comparable to Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which he moves back and forth between sharp sarcasm and earnest pleadings to the Corinth church to get on the right track. Certainly songs such as “Home Permanent” bristle with barbs at superficial, simpleton naïveté Christianity. But then, Taylor offers songs such as “Sanctuary” with its direct appeal for Jesus as the only hiding place worth seeking, and “As The World Turns” exploring the reality of life in Christ while living in a fallen world.

Vox Humana is not Daniel Amos’ best work. That honor goes to Dig Here, Said The Angel. But for those nostalgic for ‘80s rock/pop and/or seeking for previously hidden songwriting gems, Vox Humana is well worth repeated listens.

The album is available at Daniel Amos’s website.

“Liberation Front” by Kemper Crabb a clarion call for church renewal and revival

In the early to mid 1970s, commercials for Mennen Skin Bracer aftershave were a staple of network television, especially sports programming. The tag line was simple: after the announcer deeply intoned how Skin Bracer’s skin tightner and chin chillers wake you up like a cold slap in the face, a man would slap some on – always twice – and end the commercial with, “Thanks – I needed that.” While minister, teacher, musician, and author Kemper Crabb’s aftershave preference is known but to himself and immediate family, he has taken Skin Bracer’s message to heart. His new book Liberation Front: Resurrecting the Church is a Scriptural muscle-guided slap in the face to both individual believers and the church as a whole calling them, and it, back to the Biblically-ordained role and power the church has been divinely ordained to uphold in earth and in heaven.

Crabb is a Renaissance man, not only in how his music over the years has often referenced said era and earlier both musically and lyrically, but in his thorough knowledge of both Scripture and history. He makes his case both straight from the Bible and early church teachers/teachings that church membership is vital to every believer, alongside this outlining and then carefully detailing what Crabb labels the church’s seven modes (Romance, Family, Body, Temple, Pillar and Ground of Truth, Weapon, Liberating Army). Throughout the text Crabb exhorts, challenges, and confronts the reader to discard what he perceives as an emasculated view of the church’s role in society on all levels, instead embracing the Scriptural mandates and promised empowerment to be an effective force in first the lives of believers and from there the lives of others.

The book is not a mere recitation of the Riot Act to Christians equally afraid of their own shadow and determined to go it alone. Crabb points out that the way to genuine peace in Christ comes through embracing His divine empowerment, and its corresponding ramifications, in both the present day heavenly places and here on Earth. In his view, the church is painfully shortchanging itself, and its members painfully shortchanging themselves, by failing to embrace and live out the nearly unimaginable strengths available for the asking once the entirety of Biblical guidelines and promises are accepted, with tremendous emphasis on the neglected if not outright rejected supernatural portions of true life in Christ.

Liberation Front is not an easy read on multiple fronts. Crabb refuses to dumb down his writing, and as noted the book is void of warm spiritual-sounding fuzzies designed to make the reader feel good about him or herself regardless of where they are in life. But for the believer seeking adherence to, and clarification of, his or her true place in the church, the church’s true place in the world, and what God has in mind for His Bridegroom the Church, Liberation Front is as vital and mind/heart/soul-expanding as it gets in today’s world.

The book is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

“All At Once” by Phil Keaggy a blues and pop triumph

A hitherto believed impossibility has recently stunned many in the recorded music industry. Last year, catalog releases, catalog in this instance defined as releases more than eighteen months old, for the first time outsold new releases. And not by a small amount: over four million more catalog releases were purchased than the latest, and apparently considered to be something other than greatest, new music to hit the CD racks and download sites. The primary reason for this is older music fans being far more conditioned, therefore far more likely, to value music as a commodity than millennials. Thus, baby boomers and Generation Xers alike are much more likely to buy music than millennials, said demographic content with streaming whatever strikes their fancy today and tossing it aside tomorrow.

With increasing frequency, veteran artists are simultaneously taking advantage of their music’s cherished status, and freeing themselves from all music industry commerciality standards, by going directly to their fan base via social media to fund their next project through different sites. Master guitarist Phil Keaggy, who for four decades has thrilled audiences with his liquid fire playing and ofttimes gentle melodic rock/pop tunesmithing, has taken advantage of this by turning to his fans to in essence pre-buy his latest release, entitled All At Once. Those who did have been richly rewarded.

Keaggy is one of the rare breed of artists who is at his or her absolute best when completely left to his or her own devices. Freed by his fans to make an album strictly for his fans, Keaggy fully taps into his two main strengths, namely melodic blues and McCartneyesque pop, and cuts loose with all the glee of a youth finally able to crank up his or her stereo because his or her parents are out of the house. In a lesser artist’s hands this could lead to self-indulgent slop, but Keaggy sails though with nary a hiccup. Be it the full in the face delicious bluesy smack of “Mercy,” the pure pop wistfulness of the title track, or many points in-between Keaggy makes pure magic happen. He easily slides between clear gospel and fun love song lyrics, everything marvelously tied together by his guitar work mixing breathtaking cascading runs at near inhuman speed with soulful stinging licks blessed with angelic power.

A few days ago, a review of The Union of Sinners and Saints debut CD mentioned a song included therein titled “Old Guys Rule.” In Keaggy’s case, old guys not only rule, they demonstrate an ability to burn the frets off a guitar with skill and purpose most every other musician on the planet can only dream of approaching. All At Once is an exhilarating, tuneful, soulful thrill ride.

“The Warbler” by Steve Hindalong quietly succeeds

As rock‘n’roll approaches its sixties, with many of its leading creators doing the same if not having long since passed said mark, the question in a music landscape presently inundated by dreary autotuned virtual instrument laden mojo-less pop garbage is how to maintain relevance to a new generation unaware of what actual music created by human beings sounds like. Today’s audience is perfectly acceptant of lip synced pseudo-concerts during which empty on-stage bombast is eagerly lapped up in lieu of genuine expression. In response, some veteran artists content themselves with endlessly recycling aging hits for aging fans. Thankfully, there are exceptions; artists with a solid résumé yet unwilling to rest on their past work, instead pushing on to find new expressions. Such is the case with Steve Hindalong’s new solo release The Warbler.

Hindalong, known in Christian alt rock circles as the drummer and lyricist for The Choir and among the church at large as the cowriter of “God Of Wonders,” has assembled a mature yet fresh collection of quiet, textured rock in the vein heavily mined by Death Cab For Cutie without copying the “I Will Possess Your Heart” purveyors and variations thereof. There are natural traces of The Choir’s dreamy musical musings without coming across as a Choir record with Hindalong instead of Derri Daugherty on lead vocal. The collection is even throughout, but two songs do stand out: “Unparalyzed” — cowritten with Hindalong’s “God of Wonders” collaborator Marc Byrd — with its gentle but consuming throb, and “For a Lifetime,” a straightforward love song combining the triple scoop sweetness of a strong hook, singalong melody, and the sublime lyric ‘I fell in love with you in a moment / For a lifetime.’

Those hoping for “God Of Wonders Part II” will be disappointed by this album’s introspective, thankfully minus excessive shoe-gazing, nature. The album itself is anything but a disappointment. In nature, the warbler is a rather indistinct bird, but in Hindalong’s case The Warbler is a welcome product from an autumn lion producing, in lieu of a roar, a pleasant modern purr.

The album will be available starting July first at The Choir’s website.

The Union of Sinners and Saints bring Christian rock back

Earlier this month, veteran Christian rocker Billy Smiley, best known for his work in Whiteheart, wrote: “… I have a deep hope and a challenge to the young musicians out there. I want to encourage you to go where no one has gone yet. Don’t imitate, but create. Use historical influences (as we all have) to create what you are going through, with your questions and journeys, and write great songs the world will connect to.” With the release of the self-titled debut The Union of Sinners and Saints, Smiley’s new band with Petra lead singer John Schlitt, the challenge to young musicians now includes trying to keep up with the old guys.

As can be expected given its leadership, The Union of Sinners and Saints is well-honed muscular melodic rock, familiar without falling into formulaic shallowness. Schlitt’s well-preserved voice retains its grit while still hitting the high notes with ease, the band featuring accomplished veterans such as Jon Knox (Adam Again and Whiteheart) alongside more recent talent in the presence of Jason Fowler serving up a massive foundation for him to lay his voice atop. Covers of Whiteheart (“Independence Day”) and Petra (“Beyond Belief”) do the originals full justice, and the pure garage rock snarl of “Old Guys Rule” alongside the subdued progressive rock vibe of “Bittersweet” are standouts among a stack of solid originals by Smiley with major contributions by Schlitt and Peter Furler of Newsboys fame. The ballads never dip into saccharine and the rockers truly rock.

In the aforementioned article by Smiley, he lamented the demise of Christian artists being able to tell stories with their songs, instead seeing a multitude of look-alike sound-alike imitators of benign secular music genres churn out endless, repetitive to distraction worship tracks. Unlike most from previous generations who are content with playing curmudgeons online but offering no alternative, Smiley along with Schlitt and company have gone out and done something about it. The Union of Sinners and Saints is not solely a great old school Christian rock album. It is a great rock‘n’roll record period; the kind one often assumes no one makes anymore. To the tremendous benefit of all, The Union of Sinners and Saints have made one.

The Hyperdrive Kittens rock out the alley

On first, second, and even third glance Back To The Alley, San Francisco Bay Area rock‘n’roll band The Hyperdrive Kittens superb debut CD, seems like an odd choice to mention in conjunction with evangelical news. Once placed into proper context, the connection becomes obvious.

Yesterday, Billy Smiley, veteran Christian rocker best known for his work in Whiteheart and presently involved with The Union Of Sinners And Saints, wrote an article titled The Musings of an Artist and Producer in Today’s Music Culture, posting it on the band’s Facebook page. Quoting from same:

Two statements that I have read recently gave even more clarity to my own thoughts while John Schlitt (Petra) and I talked, wrestled, and worked on lyrics and music that we were writing for our new album The Union of Sinners and Saints. Our perspective from an additional twenty years of living, learning, and being away from the popular Christian culture that we were both part of and in in the 80s and 90s helped us write with a perspective of “What can I do in this season of my life that is meaningful,” “How can we use this platform to encourage others to do the same with their lives,” and “Where is this world heading into?”

I do not necessarily long for the golden years of the music industry (although I am so thankful to have grown up in the creative decades of the late 60s and 70s where music seemed to thrive on each artist wanting to be different from the next), but John and I both seem to have a passion to almost prove ourselves all over again, because we have to write and we have to sing. That is what we love to do!

One of the statements that triggered this response from me came from a fellow musician last month, Regie Hamm, who said:

“Christian music as the platform for an artist performing for an audience is pretty much a thing of the past. It has morphed into a forum for worship leaders. The new incarnation of ‘faith-based music’ is the white, acoustic guitar-playing singer/songwriter who has a good (but nondescript) voice. He is just dangerous enough looking to give him some street cred. And his music will be a very well constructed amalgam of all of the least sexual popular music of the day.

“In the end, it will still essentially be created with barriers and roadblocks and hindrances. And there’s the rub. Creativity requires freedom. Why did everyone from the Jonas Brothers to Katy Perry start out in Christian Music … but then leave? An artist can only paint the same painting – with implied instructions to only use the same seven colors – so many times.

“I love Jesus. But I would imagine even HE probably gets tired of having his name continually rhymed with ‘frees us.‘”

Also:

I listen to Christian music now and ask, “Where are the poets? Where are the questions? Where are the champions or thought? Where are the dreamers? Where have they gone? What are the mysteries around us that we still don’t understand and are willing to write about and question?” As Christians shouldn’t we be obsessed with humbly challenging the culture of today with the best music, art, and performance the world has ever seen? Why don’t we do that?

Enter The Hyperdrive Kittens. Three of its four members are openly Christians (since recording the CD in question the band has added a fifth member who is also Christian), coincidentally the same percentage of believers as in U2. Yet even with this, it is highly doubtful the band will be invited to play at your local Christian music festival. This is entirely to said festival’s loss.

The Hyperdrive Kittens are pure rock‘n’roll, equally at ease with roots rock, punk, and most every point in-between. Lyrically, the band takes a very Alice Cooper-like approach in that without demeaning, or in any fashion offending, the members faith skillfully plays characters and tells stories designed to entertain with a knowing wink. The chuckle-inducing easy relatability of “Roommate Hell” and a searing rendition of “Fever,” originally made popular by Peggy Lee, are immediate standouts. Repeated listens reveal a collection of seven songs, all but the aforementioned “Fever” and one other composed by guitarist Lee Nails with one co-write with lead singer Jenene Curtis, with no weak links.

Billy Smiley justifiably simultaneously wonders about and laments the shallowness of today’s Christian music scene. Thankfully, there is at least one band out there bucking the trend. The Hyperdrive Kittens would easily stand out in a pre-fabricated music landscape of autotune and virtual instruments layered atop drum machines regardless, but the fact that The Hyperdrive Kittens operate out of a love of Christ takes their music from great rock‘n’roll in and of itself to great rock‘n’roll that is vital to everyone searching for truth in art.

The CD is available at Amoeba Music in Berkeley, California and directly from the band through its Facebook page.

Love In Action

Kerry Livgren, of the band Kansas and songs “Dust In The Wind” along with “Carry On Wayward Son” fame, recently penned a lengthy muse on Facebook:

Miracles. Everyone has heard of them, some of us have experienced them, perhaps even multiple times. I will enthusiastically confess that I am of the latter group.

The dictionary describes a miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” For the less theologically inclined, “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.”

Anyone would have to admit, the Parting of the Red Sea, or Christ feeding the Five Thousand are miraculous events. But how often do relatively minor miracles get overlooked, because they are not so dramatic? Are we embarrassed to mention them, or do we even notice them?

Sometimes we have to notice that a naturalistic explanation of an event is simply not going to work. The evidence is too overwhelming.

I will give you an example, (actually three), from my own life. Although there are many others I could tell you about, and they are MUCH more dramatic, I am going to relate these three because they could so easily be explained as “just peculiar occurrences.”

Guitars. Now what could possibly be miraculous about guitars? Well, I will tell you the tale of three “miraculous” guitars I have owned.

(this segment of the story appeared in the book “Between the Strings” by John August Schroeder)

“Miracle” Number 1: (1991) In 1970, while I was in the first Kansas band, we were touring the southwest. The dryness of the atmosphere around Albuquerque caused the neck of the Gibson SG I was playing to warp beyond playability. It got to be a really serious problem. When we got back home, the band bought me a new guitar—a brand new 1969 Les Paul Deluxe Gold Top.

I played that guitar for years, writing dozens, if not scores of songs on it. It was, in fact, the only guitar I played for many years. When Kansas landed their first major recording contract a little more cash began to fill the coffers, and I decided I needed a new guitar. So I traded in that Les Paul for, of all things, a Hagstrom Swede.

It wasn’t long before I began to miss that Les Paul. It didn’t seem to matter what guitar I played; I always regretted getting rid of it. It’s something all guitarists seem to do sooner or later. Like most guitar players, I have a long list of instruments that I wish I had never gotten rid of. I don’t know why we do that, but we do.

Years went by, and guitars went by, and Kansas achieved its multi-platinum success, and still, I never forgot that Les Paul, even though at that time I could have had any guitar I wanted.

One day in 1991, my wife had gone to visit her parents. Well, I was home alone and it was a beautiful day, so I thought I’d get into my Piper Turbo Arrow and just fly around. We were living near Atlanta at the time, and I “got a wild hair” to fly off to the north west. As I continued, I got the crazy idea to fly on to Kansas and drop in on some of my old friends.

I landed in Topeka, rented a car, and drove down to “Steam Music,” the little music store where we used to hang out. As I walked in the door, a fellow I had known for years who worked there looked at me as though he had just seen a ghost. At that very moment, he was hanging a guitar up on the wall—my old Les Paul. Somebody had come in that day and traded it in.

He began to tell me the story of that guitar since it left my hands, where it had gone, who had owned it. It ended up being stolen in the southwest somewhere, and was recovered by the police. It somehow found its way back to Kansas, and when it came into the store, he immediately recognized it. And so had I.

I had played that thing so much that I literally sweated off the gold top finish. I eventually stripped it down to bare wood. And I knew that serial number; there was no question that this was my guitar. And seeing it again after all those years—and ruing the day I let it go—I told him, “Don’t even hang it up. Don’t even tell me what you want for it. Just sell it to me here and now.”

I put the guitar in my plane and flew back to Atlanta. I sent it up to Ken Hoover, who refretted it got it back into shape. But it’s not leaving again. I suppose it will go in my coffin when they bury me.

“Miracle” Number 2: (2015) I walked over to my ringing phone and picked it up. It was Bob Tolford, and friend from Atlanta. Bob would call periodically, and it was always good to hear from him.

“Hi Bob, what’s up?” He replied that he had just seen our documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” Then, he said something puzzling. “I was wondering – do you want your guitar back?” he said. Now I have many friends who are guitarists, but Bob was not one of them, so I got very curious about his question.

“You know,” he said, “the one you wrote Dust in the Wind on.”

The silence on my end of the phone spoke volumes. When I came to my senses, I said “What?? You mean you have had that guitar all these years?” You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had always wondered what happened to that guitar. Not knowing what a huge hit “Dust” was going to be, I had sold the guitar. It was an Aria acoustic, a mid-price model, and I didn’t even remember who I had sold it to. Later, of course, I regretted that decision, and often found myself wondering where it was, and who had it.

“Are you serious, Bob?” Would you ship it to me? “I’ll do better than that Kerry,” he replied. “I’ll drive it up to you.” Never was Bob so welcome in our house! The legendary Dust in the Wind guitar had returned home.

“Miracle” Number 3: (2016) I drove down to the little Berryton Post Office in order to mail some CD’s that had been ordered, and to pick up my mail. The clerk handed me the day’s mail, among which was a letter to me from one Tony Camardo, from Chicago.

When I got home, I opened his letter and began reading. At first, I just thought it was a fan letter, until he began saying that he had been to one of our shows long ago in Chicago, and that he was the guy who had traded me an old SG for the Les Paul that I was playing at the time. Once again I got very curious.

I remember trading that guitar, but I had traded several guitars back and forth and my memory was not that clear. The memory of the guitar itself was crystal clear, however. It was (another) example of trades that I would later regret.

Just the week before, I had watched our documentary again on VH1-C. The scene that caught my attention was the second Don Kirshner show, where I was playing a Tobacco Sunburst Les Paul – the very guitar mentioned in Tony’s letter. Then, to my astonishment, he went on to ask me it I wanted it back! He was willing to trade it for another guitar.

So I agreed, thanked him profusely, and a week later I had another of my old guitars back!

So are these things miracles? Are they simply instances of exceeding kindness, or are they divine interventions? Perhaps they are just extraordinary circumstances. I have my suspicions, but alas I don’t know. You tell me…

The first guitar Livgren discusses – a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe – is a jumping off point for my own guitar tale.

I start by noting two facts. One, although I am approximately as far back in talent from Livgren as Justin Bieber is from The Beatles, I do have some small amount of musical ability in terms of playing and writing. So there’s that. Second, while the Gibson Les Paul is the second most popular electric guitar in the world, expertly wielded by such guitar deities as Jimmy Page and Slash, there have been multiple models of said guitar over the decades, some more popular than others. The Deluxe, despite its name, is pretty much at the bottom of every Les Paul aficionado’s list. This is due to it using smaller pickups than the Les Paul Standard model, thus giving it less output and a less meaty tone than the Standard and variations thereof. Adding to the Deluxe’s lack of desirability is during its primary years in production (1969 through 1980 or thereabouts) Gibson was owned by a company named Norlin. Despite its music industry origins, Norlin was acquired by an Ecuadorian adult beverage manufacturer that apparently freely dispensed its product to everyone involved in decision making, as the demonstrated knowledge of quality guitar making during its Norlin ownership period was as far removed from a single clue how to go about it as … well, refer the aforementioned Bieber-Beatles comparison. One piece body for best tonality and sustain? Forget it! Let’s do slightly upscale plywood! One piece neck? That’s crazy talk! We’ll glue three pieces together! (To be fair, there are several top-flight guitar makers who prefer multi-piece necks; however in this case it was for cheapness sake as opposed to a quality issue.) And to top if off – literally – we’ll make the headstock bigger, thus making it more likely to snap off if the guitar gets dropped or otherwise jostled! BRILLIANT! Long story short: in terms of desirability and collectibility the Les Paul Deluxe is none of the above.

Naturally it’s my favorite Les Paul model. I love its sound, somewhere in-between the cut and bite of a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster and the traditional humbucker pickup roar of most every other Les Paul. To me, it’s the perfect combination. So, despite its scorned state of being, the Les Paul Deluxe is dear to my heart.

I first owned one in my tenderheaded … er, tender teen years. It was used. (The guitar, not my head.) I had longed after it when it hung for months in my favorite music store, but the price tag was above my reach. Then someone bought it. Then a few month later it returned, definitely the worse for wear. The once pristine wine red finish was in a sorry state, with scratches and gouges a-plenty. Unfortunate, but it did serve one useful purpose: it brought the price down to where I could successfully beseech my parents for the guitar. Soon it was mine. As an added bonus, my Dad agreed to pay to have it refinished, so off it went, returning a couple of weeks later in a beautiful walnut.

Reference the aforementioned tenderheaded uniform of youth I wore. Eventually I traded my Les Paul for a Fender Stratocaster. Not that there is anything wrong with Stratocasters; they are awesome. Unfortunately, the one I acquired was anything but awesome. And someone quickly snapped up the Les Paul. I lamented my decision then, and I lament my decision today. (The Stratocaster has long since been sold.)

Fast forward thirty years. I had been surgically repaired and could once again play guitar; a tale for another time. Anyway, my regret over getting rid of the Les Paul still hung heavy. I had the money to buy one, sort of, and I wanted to rectify my previous error. So off to look for one at my preferred music store … whaddyamean they don’t make the Deluxe anymore? Swell. Okay, let’s look for a used one in good shape.

In the “too soon old, too late smart” department, I decided to scour eBay. Not that there’s anything wrong with buying most things off of the site, but when you are looking at something as personal as a guitar, especially a used one, you’re taking just a wee bit of a gamble. As in a ridiculously big one.

Nevertheless, I plowed ahead. Ah-HA! There were several listed, but one in particular caught my eye. Made in 1976. Natural finish. Professional setup (so the description said). Zillions of high quality photos of every inch of the guitar. Looked clean and sweet. Okay. Take a deep breath and click the Buy It Now button.

Then the guitar arrived.

Three things became rapidly apparent. One, the guitar was in remarkably good condition for having thirty plus years on it. There was some cosmetic damage here and there, but overall it was excellent. Two, the professional setup claim was a bit of a stretch; it immediately required readjustment of most everything adjustable, and there was a problem with the nut that had me slide a small piece of paper in-between one of the strings and its slot in order to keep the string from buzzing. Three, the previous owner or owners had played the guitar a ton. The frets were extremely worn. They also apparently never washed their hands before playing, as both sides of every single fret bore a thick cake of grime. Also, whether it was because of the incredible amount of playing needed to wear the frets down to where they were, or some other factor, the fretboard inlays – like the frets, all of them – had worked themselves out of the fingerboard to where the edges sat just above the wood, with grime caked against all edges. Swell. The guitar was still playable, and sounded wonderful, but it was an uncomfortable mess to play.

I did what I could: clean the fingerboard (which didn’t reset the inlays, alas), replace some broken or worn out plastic parts such as the toggle switch tip. An improvement for sure. Still, a far cry from satisfactory, especially considering the money I had shelled out. The end result was a seldom played guitar and me deciding what to do.

Finally, one day I had my Popeye moment. You know, that’s all I can stands and I can’t stands no more? I grabbed the guitar and went to a well-recommended repair shop in San Francisco. Didn’t like the vibe there; for some strange reason being treated like an inconvenience doesn’t warm the cuckolds of my heart. That, and the fact it would be several months before they could even look at my guitar, made it a no-go. So I went to a different well-recommended repair shop where I wasn’t laughed out of the place the moment I opened my guitar’s case and pulled out my mangy mutt.

My original idea was to have the inlays reset flush with the fingerboard and leave it at that. Said idea flew out the window when the main repair guru took one look at the guitar and, after commenting he had never seen inlays working their way out of the fingerboard like that before, said, “You have got to get this guitar refretted. These things are gone.” I reluctantly agreed, choosing the slightly more expensive stainless steel frets over the usual nickel one in order to pretty much guarantee that no matter how much I played the guitar going forward the frets would outlive me. They also replaced the nut and gave everything else the once-over. And, during the initial meeting, carefully went over with me what kind of guitar player I was as far as style so they could select the right size and shape frets to best match my playing. I appreciated that.

About a month passed. Then the call came. Guitar is done; pick it up whenever. So I rushed over. The repairman discussed how, in order to fix the inlays, they had to very carefully remove them all, re-route the fingerboard spots for them, and glue them back in. A bit out of the ordinary, but the results were flawless. I picked up my guitar, played a few notes, and immediately realized this was the best guitar I had ever played. Ever. It was perfect. Took a while to get there, but it was perfect. I’ll always miss my first Les Paul Deluxe, but this one was a more than worthy replacement.

I’ve often wondered about the person or persons who owned the guitar before the Floridian online dealer I bought it from acquired it. The grimy fingerboard aside, they took very good care of it. They obviously loved it. And, they obviously loved playing it. So why did they let it go? A somewhat melancholy thought, given how the the likeliest answers are they were either no longer able to play, or were no longer here to play, this guitar which now resides with me.

And that’s the story of my guitar. Hardly miraculous how it came into my possession. Yet, there is a touch of the miraculous how this particular guitar came to be mine, and how once given the loving care it had been more or less given its entire existence it sprang to life as a truly fine instrument. Sometimes, the least desirable turns out to be the greatest prize. All it takes is skillfully, actively applied love in action. So it is with my guitar.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I really need to practice my playing.

Seventy Sevens “20 Years Gone” a superb compilation

As the traditional music industry’s business model transforms in the face of omnipresent streaming and decreasing physical product sales, one of this paradigm shift’s casualties is the greatest hits package. It had been a music industry staple that every year end would bring a large batch of compilation records perfect for gift-giving to the casual fan interested in only the hits instead of any given artist’s catalog work and diehard fan needing to have everything released by a favorite. Today, with artists’ product releases separated by years rather than months and fewer consumers owning anything on which to play a CD let alone an album, the greatest hits album has moved alongside aluminum Christmas trees as a relic from a bygone age. Happily, veteran Christian rockers The 77s have given their fans an early Christmas present in the form of Twenty Years Gone, a compilation of the band’s sublime highlights over the past two decades.

Drawing from the band’s catalog in its present trio format, Twenty Years Gone showcases the 77s dual strengths of dreamy, Beach Boys-infused pop and snarling, muscular blues. Ably abetted by Mark Harmon’s supple bass and Bruce Spencer’s subtle drums, songwriter/guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Roe proves time and again he is not a musical chameleon, but rather a multi-faceted master of multiple styles, his tunes always laced with inventive yet comfortable melodies and total six-string mastery. Whether reeling off original songs so well constructed they come across as almost effortless or digging into roots bluesy gospel tracks from the past, Roe and compatriots have created a body of work demonstrating beyond question they are a quintessential American band come not to party the town down but rather to lay bare its soul, pointing out the pain of failed relationships and the healing that comes solely through Christ.

In an era where popular music has become both far more present and increasingly irrelevant in terms of something designed to savor and save, it is utterly refreshing to have a fresh reminder of music as art; not the stuffy pretentious puffery of musicians believing they are too good for their audience, but rather music touching heart, mind, and soul. Roe sings with more than a touch of sardonic with on “The Late Greats” ‘you won’t hear it on the radio.’ Thankfully, with Twenty Years Gone The 77s enable us to hear it period. Which if not the best gift to receive this Christmas surely ranks up there.

The CD and download is available at Bandcamp.

Elegy for a pastor

Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California and one of the leading figures in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, passed away today after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 86.

To try and explain the impact Chuck Smith had on contemporary American evangelical Christianity, a brief personal illustration. Back in the mid-1970s, in my neck of the woods (San Francisco Bay Area) the reverberations of the Jesus Movement were still being felt in youth culture. It was a heady time, teens and twentysomethings filled with intense love for Jesus and equally intense belief that His return to the earth would be soon and very soon. Wed sit on our bench, located perilously close to the jock bench, in our high school quadrangle with our guitars as we sang and strummed away on our little songs about a great big God. There were all the obligatory teenage angst moments, falling in and out of love at breakneck speed while occasionally musing about what we would do once we were set free from our high school protective cocoon. But we trusted Jesus would take care of that, and besides He would be coming back shortly so why get worked up over a future that would never come to pass?

Being San Francisco Bay Area people, naturally we loathed and looked down on all things Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. However, we cut Orange County, south of L.A., a lot of slack. No, not because of Disneyland. It was the home of something we greatly envied, although we were careful to label it anything but envy as of course envy was a sin. This was semantics, though. It was envy.

We envied Orange County for being the home of Chuck Smith.

Where we were, Christian concerts were far and few between. There would be the occasional appearance by Barry McGuire at Mario Murillos monthly Night of Miracles rally in Oakland, but other than that there was precious little. There was no radio to which we could listen; the local stations were all AM dollar a holler junk. But where Chuck Smith was, there were concerts every Saturday night playing our music. There was a radio station, an FM radio station, playing our music. There was a church where we knew wed all be welcome no matter our hair length or dress code. There was a place we knew that if we could only get there we would be blessed beyond words by being at the home base of everything we held dear in our unstoppable zeal. But, we couldnt get there despite whispered conversations about how if we split the gas and had all the boys stay in one hotel room and all the girls in another with no visitations save with the door wide open, maybe we could borrow someones parents van and one day make a pilgrimage to Santa Ana so we could experience in person this magical place from whence came the records on the Maranatha! Music label we eagerly devoured.

Time passed, as it does. Jesus had other plans and didnt come back before the 1980s set in, or any subsequent decade for that matter. Some of us walked away from the faith, disillusioned at the prospect of having to actually live out a normal life with a job and family and everything else that comes with these things. Some of us passed away. But some of us remained, our faith ofttimes battered, bruised and beaten down to the point of near abandonment. Yet we still believed, chuckling over our previous eschatological fixation and learning, as best we could, to be happy with what we had and learning to have faith in Christ alone, not in an image of Him being the ultimate get out of jail card.

This all said, the news of Chuck Smiths passing is not an occasion for nostalgic musing about when we were young, alive, on fire and had all the answers. It is a moment to note all that he accomplished: the artists for whom he provided a platform; the multitude of Calvary Chapels now dotting the globe. His name does not have the recognition factor of other post-WWII American Christianity leaders such as Billy Graham or any given TV evangelist. But today, wherever there is a folk/rock guitar being played and song being sung, and wherever there is a ministry saying come as you are because Jesus loves you and so do we, Chuck Smith is there. And we are all the better for it.

God bless you, Pastor Chuck, now at home in your Fathers arms.

“Incandescent” by Crumbacher still shines brightly

After twenty-five or so years of being mostly a fond memory, occasionally augmented by worn-out vinyl or cassette, Incandescent, the debut album by Christian synth-pop band Crumbächer, has been re-released this week.

Before getting into a review of the album itself, some background about the time when it first saw the light of day is in order. Originally released in 1985, unbeknownst to all involved at the time Incandescent was one of the, if not the absolute, final entries in a music catalog that proved vital in contemporary Christian music’s early days. It came from Broken Records, a division of Maranatha! Music that itself was owned and operated by Calvary Chapel in Santa Ana, California, a church that had been one of the primary focal points for the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. The church also spawned a host of bands and solo artists that routinely played Saturday night concerts at Calvary Chapel plus shows at other like-minded nascent evangelical churches in the area. Nearly all of the artists were primarily if not totally devoted to evangelism, consistent with the church’s belief that Christ’s return was imminent and therefore maximum proselyting was needed so that as many people as possible would be saved prior to, as taught in the church’s theology, the Rapture (all living believers physically leaving the earth and being taken to heaven) and Great Tribulation (the coming and reign of the Antichrist) that would precede Jesus’ coming back to earth. Musically the main style was mellow, with touches of the folk-rock and country-rock being popularized at the time by fellow southern California-based mainstream acts such as the Eagles. This vibe lasted throughout the 1970s into the early 1980s.

By 1983, with new wave in full swing and MTV becoming an ever-growing music presence, the next generation of Calvary Chapel artists had begun exploring genres hitherto untouched, such as rockabilly and punk. As far as the church was concerned, this was tolerable as long as it kept the assorted bands and artists under control. This started falling apart as artists, chomping at the bit for both more artistic freedom and freedom from the restraints of evangelism first and foremost, began spreading their wings. In 1985 Calvary Chapel pulled the plug, dismantling its record labels and dismissing its artists save those devoted to anonymously creating its long-running series of wildly popular übersoft pop praise and worship albums. However, before this decision the church briefly tried its hand at promoting far edgier sounds than those with which it had grown comfortable. Thus, among other modern bands such as Undercover and Altar Boys, under its wings there was Crumbächer.

In musical terms Crumbächer was far more restrained than most of its label mates. The band’s leader, at the time its sole songwriter and always lead vocalist Steve Crumbacher was musically weaned on pop vocal ensembles such as ABBA and the Beach Boys. Filtering this through the less gritty side of early to mid-1980s synth rock, Crumbacher created arrangements of layered keyboards and vocal harmonies galore, all set to danceable rhythms. It was a mix far more akin to a-ha than Ultravox, but this was an afterthought. The songs and musical roots were what mattered the most. That it was placed into synth-pop arrangements stemmed not from any great affiliation with the genre itself, but rather because at the time it was the most effective means of reaching the band’s teen and tweener audience. And reach them it did.

Listening to it now, what is most striking about Incandescent is how, despite the decidedly 1980s style throughout, it holds up remarkably well. It helps that the band (in addition to Crumbacher on lead vocals and keyboards the lineup was Dawn Wisner-Johnson on keyboards, Jimmy Wisner on drums and Dan Hohulin on guitar, with all contributing backing vocals) was instrumentally and vocally proficient. That duly noted, the album’s main strength is that, regardless of how they were arranged to fit the band’s target genre and time period, the songs themselves are well constructed pop tunes. Hooks, melodies and rhythms all come together with graceful ease, creating tunes made for being sung along with as well as providing top-notch dancing material. With any kind of proper push, there would have been Top 40 hits from this album, most noticeably “Jamie,” even with its undisguised Christian lyrical bent.

Certainly there is an element of nostalgia here; after all, the album being discussed is twenty-eight years old. However, the enduring quality of Incandescent plus how it taps into a truth that has permeated pop music since time immemorial – kids like to dance – makes this far more than an exercise in remembering when. Want proof? More than a few fans from back in the day, who now have kids of their own, have mentioned on social media that their offspring can’t get enough of the album’s infectious melodies and beats. It might be a child of its era, but Incandescent has the power to shine brightly for generations to come.

The album is available on iTunes, Amazon and Frontline Records.