“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.

When It All Gets Too Real

End Sex Trafficking Now

I enjoy the great privilege of knowing Dawn Wisner Johnson, of Crumbächer fame for those of you who know your ’80s Christian rock, as a beloved friend. Dawn has a heart that cannot be measured, demonstrated over the years by how she has not only taken care of, but taken in, abandoned and abused kids as freely as animal lovers take in stray cats and dogs. It’s what she does.

Earlier today, she posted this on Facebook:

Yesterday, my family went to a funeral for a young woman who was killed as a result of her being a victim of human sex trafficking. Out of honor to the family of this victim (they are “family” to us), that is all the information I will give at this point.

When I found out this news a few months ago, I was devastated. For the past few years, I’ve been working with, helping, and supporting a non profit – Forgotten Children – headed by my good friend, Paula Daniels. I never thought that this would hit so close to home.

Friends, please take a moment to watch this interview with a victim that escaped. If you don’t have the time to do that, would you “like” this post? The more likes, the more people will see it.

I’m also very sad that when I post on Facebook about human trafficking I may get 5 “likes.” Yet, when I post about my vacations or family, 50 to 100 “likes”. How sad that is to me.

We have many working in this field to change laws and make sure that these traffickers and those “buying” the girls are caught. For that I am grateful. San Bernardino is a leader in this fight because of our district attorney Michael Ramos.

This funeral we attended yesterday was one of the hardest I’ve been to. The young daughter of this victim, wept and gave tribute to her mother. We all cried along with her. It’s time to make a change and get this horrible crime under control in our nation.

Not much more to say, is there.

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.

(Why I) Don’t Get Around Much (Politically) Anymore

I’ve never met Kemberlee Kaye either online or in person. I know people online who know her in person and vouch for her as being quality of the highest order, which is more than good enough for me. Of her personally I know little other than what she’s detailed in assorted website and social media bios. She’s married, I think. I know she’s Catholic, and she lives in Texas. I don’t know if she’s a lawyer, but she has worked in some capacity in the legal system. She writes for the excellent Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion blog among other conservative online publications. That’s all I’ve got. Which is fine.

A few days ago, at Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion Ms. Kaye posted some notes under the title Leave Michelle Obama’s workout video alone. Quoting from same:

Objectively Mrs. Obama’s workout video was just that — an informative workout video. Void of political message or any other evil left-wing plot to undermine the Republic, thousands flocked to mock the First Lady’s quite strenuous workout regimen.

The compulsion to vomit vitriol on anything bearing the “Obama” name is unfortunate. For everything the Obama’s are and are not as leaders of the (once) free world, they remain as human and “like us” as the next family. Life is far too short to view everything through the political lens, especially exercise.

Fair enough.

Political vitriol is nothing new. What has changed in the past fifteen years or so is the incessant reproving of, with the Internet’s ever growing presence in most all aspects of our lives, its synchronized beauty and horror: fortunately, everyone can get online; unfortunately, so can anyone. No longer are political debates relegated to the local newspaper for editors and letter writers to hash out any given topic. Now, we have blog comments. The following are among those left on Ms. Kaye’s post:

Barack Hussein Obama and Michelle LaVaugn Robinson-Obama “…remain as human and “like us” as the next family.”

What. The. Fark!?
Puh-leaze.
Get outta town with that disingenuous nonsense.

 

I don’t hate that commie, racist, criminal, affirmative action hermaphrodite any more than it hates me.

 

She wanted attention.

She got it.

Pointing out the obvious about Sasquatch is not vile, it’s the truth.

And these are among the remaining comments. Many far more brutal ones have been deleted.

There are two primary reasons why I seldom blog about politics anymore. A little backstory before continuing: I am a Christian first, meaning that unless I prefer being an utter hypocrite I acknowledge being a sinner, saved by grace brought about by the shed blood of Christ on the cross as a sacrifice for my sins and His triumphant physical resurrection from the dead; and I am a federalist second, meaning that politically I hold the Constitution to be the supreme inviolable law of the land and always to be strictly, literally interpreted with a corresponding limited government. In short, I’m a classic liberal as defined by Hayek and socially conservative, meaning I despise both political parties and am in no way a libertarian regardless of my aforementioned belief in limited government due to the current definition of libertarian being someone who worships the trinity of Ayn, Ron, and Rand in-between toking up sessions. Also, I believe no one is beyond the redemptive power of Jesus while simultaneously knowing there is genuine evil, and are genuinely evil, people in the world who must be opposed.

With this in mind, it should come as zero surprise I am as politically opposed to the Obama administration’s policies and philosophy as it gets. I despise excessive government spending, with its corresponding deficits and crushing tax burden, regardless of how superficially noble the cause may be; for private investment and competition between businesses create near infinitely better results than government’s hamfisted blundering in most every enterprise. Dovetailed into this is fierce opposition to excessive governmental regulation, including full-bore takeover, of what should be private industries regulated by free market vying for business by providing the best combination of goods and/or services such as health insurance. I cannot abide a foreign policy that coddles ideological enemies of freedom while backhanding fellow democratic countries such as Israel. I have no tolerance for the demonization of those who achieve wealth through hard work and calculated risktaking. To summarize, I am not a Democrat.

That said, I hold no personal animosity for the Obamas. Given the opportunity I would cheerfully read them both the Riot Act, detailing why they are in grave error in so many areas. I would also illustrate for them as best I could, in deed as well as word, how to truly follow Christ mandates humility, compassion, and active care on a personal level. The perhaps apocryphal story concerning a statue of the Christ having its hands broken off yet not replaced, but rather commemorated with a plaque affixed to the statue’s base reading, “I have no hands but yours,” while far oversimplifying and to a degree downplaying Jesus through the Spirit’s direct working in our lives contains a kernel of truth. If not us who believe, who? If not with all, with who?

There is no witness in vitriol or vacillation. The steadfast refusal to compromise principals and/or Christ’s commands for His followers must reign paramount. The Prince of Peace must trump politics each and every time. There are no options for behaving differently, no outs based on the behavior of others regardless of their behavior’s contemptibility. That a post such as Ms. Kaye’s is needed is a sad commentary on those with whom I ostensibly have so much in common. Their reaction to said post is sadder. This is the first reason why I seldom discuss politics these days.

The second is conservative new media’s omnipresent ennui. Every time and everywhere you look, it is the exact same puny handful of voices saying the exact same things to the exact same crowd for the exact same reaction: cry outrage! and let slip the tweets of butthurt. What, a liberal said something outlandish or offensive? We must take offense! The mainstream media pushing an agenda? We must snarl and snark! It is nothing but shadowplay; an eternal play to the crowd for the paycheck, a preaching to the choir while accepting a generous love offering from the congregation. It changes nothing. It moves nothing. It changes and moves no one. It is the Oakland of punditry. There’s no there there. It is an utter waste of time to read, let alone create. And I do not have time to waste.

These things are why I don’t get around much politically anymore.

Childish Things

There are certain things we learn, or at least hopefully learn, as we pass through the years. A prime example of this is coming to grips with how we are best advised accepting the fact that we should not expect respect for our anger, this coming into play the first time during our tender years any of us throw a temper tantrum without reaping the hoped for reward. Unless a spanking was that for which we had a honkering.

We also learn, or should learn, to not expect respect for our tears, or reciprocation for our love. These are far more difficult to swallow. We are taught from the beginning to respect others, to honor the heralded awesome power of love, and that true love always triumphs while conquering all and overcoming all obstacles. Yet through bitter and often embittering experience we learn how love is often impotent, incapable of swaying others in any direction let alone one which we desire. Those who do not learn this, such as starry-eyed women unshakable in their pursuit of utterly undesirable men believing they can transform jerks into jewels, invariably have their ship of hopes dashed against reality’s rocks. You’d think this would be sufficient to teach us, but far too often we embody insanity by attempting the exact same thing while anticipating different results. The Biblical truism that pride goes before a fall is not exclusively reserved for the outwardly arrogant. It also applies to those of us who, while outwardly modest and/or well-intentioned, sadly overestimate our own ability.

It hurts when love isn’t returned. The illustration of a rejected Savior is hard to understand until we encounter a one-sided love of our own. The other person doesn’t look at you in a special way. He or she doesn’t soften when you’re around. He or she isn’t interested in a relationship on any level save perhaps that of casual acquaintance, one quickly forgotten the moment close proximity is no longer in effect. Perhaps the person does allow you to approach them, but even then only within his or her strictly defined and absolute, non-negotiable parameters. Held at arm’s length? Most definitely. Held in each other’s arms? Never. And yes, it makes life a living hell. An accurate description, for hell’s torment is not fire and brimstone, but rather separation from love.

The illustration in Scripture’s most misunderstood and misapplied chapter states that when I was a child, I spoke, thought, and acted like a child; in adulthood laying these childish things aside. It seems strange to think, believe, and act on the notion that there are times when laying love aside is an act of maturity. More accurately, not so much setting love itself on the shelf but learning how to be at peace with the fact others can and will disregard your love for them.

It hurts when love isn’t returned. There is no escaping, no denying the pain. If there is anything good to be drawn from these times, it is from the empathy gained for those also suffering; and how it makes more real our need to embrace — more accurately, allow ourselves to be embraced by — the nail-scarred hands belonging to the Man of Sorrows well acquainted with grief. He knows. He understands. He comforts. And He never rejects our love.

Never.

Memorial Day

My oldest brother, who fought in Vietnam, passed away a few years ago. He didn’t say much about his time there.

This is the text of a letter he sent our late father, who himself fought in World War Two and Korea, in November 1966.

This is Memorial Day.

What I am going to say will be most unpleasant, but we just spent a hell of a night up here at Tai Ninh. Here’s what happened.

At 9:00, the Viet Cong hit our position with heavy mortar, recoilless rifle, and rifle grenade fire. We hit the bunker and stayed until 10:15 when the attack was over. A flare ship started illuminating the sky, but one was a dud. It hit the aviation section tent, but it hit a man who had been in Vietnam less than a month. The force practically scalped him, and the flare ignited. The man was killed instantly. I ran over there, just after the attack with a jug of water to help put out the fire caused by the flare. Quite a bit of damage was done to the inside of the tent. Men with fire extinguishers and me with my water jug (which had just been filled) tried to put out the flare (which is next to impossible.) The flare started exploding, so we hit the ground. After that, somebody said that a man was hurt badly. I went over to see if he needed some water, but he was dead when I got there. The sight was unnerving.

We finally hit the sack after midnight. Then at two o’clock in the morning, they really mortared us. We lost twelve men, WIA, two seriously (Both should live.) A mortar round landed three feet from our communications tent and RTT van. The attack lasted until three-thirty. After the attack, I was detailed to wash the blood from the inside of the RTT van. I won’t go into any gory details of either event.

I came out without a scratch. I did not panic nor was there any extreme fear on my part. One never knows how he will react to an emergency.

Our battery suffered 25% casualties during the attack. I am all right, and they moved heavy artillery in this morning, 155mm SP howitzers, to protect against another attack tonight. We should get some sleep tonight. I hope that I never have to write another letter like this again. The danger has passed, so be thankful that I pulled through OK, and go to Aunt Beth & Hazel’s house for Thanksgiving. You have a lot to be thankful for.

My brother was a classical music buff, who reluctantly accepted I was Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll. One day, he asked me if Billy Joel had served in Vietnam, to which I replied he hadn’t, asking my brother why he asked. He replied because this song so perfectly captured what it was like there.