Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Christmas Time is here ...

For the last five Christmases, Allison and I have had the privilege of hitting the road to see Andrew Peterson's Christmas show. For all but the first year, Andrew has put on a special concert in Nashville with an amazing lineup of special guests. (Past performances have included Alison Krauss and guitarist Ron Block of Union Station fame, Fernando Ortega and Silers Bald.) This year, Andrew's show was at the historic Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Over the years, that performance hall has seen far more than its fair share of phenomenal musicians come through its venerated doors. The location was quite appropriate for the display of talent that Andrew P. assembled for Sunday night.

As with past Nashville shows, the night began with an "In the Round" portion, with Andrew introducing each artist (usually humorously), who then played one or two songs. (The first few acts only got to play one song each. I'm not sure if that was intentional, or due to time constraints.) Here is a brief synopsis:

  • Andrew began the evening by playing "Let There Be Light," which was very appropriate, considering the location, with its references to Chet Atkins and Bill Monroe. Even more appropriate is the theme of the artist, made in the image of His maker, using his gift to sub-create.

  • Jonathan and Amanda Noel, veterans of previous tours with Andrew, performed a song based on the Magnificat.

  • Derek Webb, whom Andrew introduced as a "little man" (apparently after promising not to call him a little man), played "I Want a Broken Heart" from his new (excellent) album.

  • Derek remained standing to sing with wife Sandra McCracken on a gorgeous rendition of her "Age After Age." The song itself is fantastic, but Derek's BGV's push it over the top.

  • Randall Goodgame and wife Amy performed "I Did Not Catch Her Name," which previously appeared on ("a band you may have heard of") Caedmon's Call's Share the Well. It was quite a treat hearing it sung by its writer. The song also appears on Randall's new disc War and Peace, which is phenomenal. Buy yours today.

  • Andrew Osenga was introduced as the newest addition to "a band you may have heard of" -- after Derek "got fired." Andy O. played "High School Band." I must mention that Mr. Osenga has got some serious vocal power.

  • Jill Phillips and husband Andy Gullahorn (there sure were a lot of Andy's that night) performed a new one entitled "Nobody's Got It All Together." Andrew P. also made a crack about Jill not using her husband's last name, remembering halfway through that the Gullahorn family was in attendance.

  • Andy Gullahorn played "Holy Flakes," a whimsical number about an enterprising grocery store manager who markets a cereal "endorsed" by John Paul II himself. Gullahorn's immense guitar skill is matched only by his wonderful songwriting talent and his ability to deliver humor in an extremely deadpan manner.

  • Phil Madeira, accomplished and legendary studio musician, played a song about his guardian angel -- the ghost of Johnny Cash. He also performed a bittersweet yet hopeful song about his first Christmas without his wife.

  • Buddy Miller, who played back-up during Phil's songs, played a couple of tunes in place of wife Julie, who was scheduled to appear but was prevented by illness. In honor of his wife, he played two of her songs, the second of which ("All My Tears") was written as a response to the death of the great Mark Heard. I was unfamiliar with the Millers' work, but I was thoroughly floored by Buddy's passion, in both singing and guitar playing.

  • Pierce Pettis, who is absolutely one of my favorite songwriters, played a couple of songs in between his humorous mutterings and ramblings. ("I'm glad to see that you're happy to be here tonight. I'm here to put an end to that.") He expressed his weariness with most contemporary celebrations of the Christmas season, wondering why anyone would want to record yet another Christmas album ("Present company excluded.") He also noted the many extrabiblical ways in which Christmas is celebrated ("manger displays featuring Frosty adoring the Christ-child") and the state of most Christmas music these days ("stuff like ... Madonna and Ice T singing 'Little Drummer Boy'"). More seriously, he lamented the loss of Advent as a season of anticipation. He played the somber yet hopeful "If It Wasn't For the Night," which he co-wrote with David Wilcox (who I hope will end up on the roster for next year!). He also performed "Miriam," about the Hebrew mother of Jesus, as contrasted with the Westernized version appearing in popular tradition.

  • Phil Keaggy. I'm not sure what to say about this amazing little guy. He's definitely one of the world's best guitarists. He's also really impressive live, since he lays down looping tracks on his guitar to create a one-man band. I've seen many other artists do the same kind of thing, but Keaggy does it best. From our seats, we were amused to see several of the other artists peering from backstage to witness the fretwork pyrotechnics.

After a brief intermission, Andrew and friends returned to perform Behold the Lamb of God, Andrew's Christmas album, in its entirety. If you do not have this album, I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you aren't familiar with Andrew's music, I will forgive your ignorance this once and humbly request that you give him a try. During the intermission, reflecting on how awesome the Round was, I actually wondered how much I was going to enjoy the Christmas performance. As many times as I've heard it and seen it live, I was actually afraid that it might be a bit of a let down this time. What was I thinking? It truly was amazing, and Andy pulled out all the stops this year. The sheer talent in the backing band is more than enough to inspire awe:
  • Phil M. on accordian and lap steel
  • Phil K. on lead electric guitar
  • A string quartet (led by Marcus Myers, of Silers Bald fame)
  • Garrett Buell, of "a band you may have heard of," on drums
  • Andrew O. on guitars and one of the most enormous pedal/effects boards I've ever seen
  • Kyle Reeder on banjo and mandolin
  • Steve Hindalong, producer and former member of The Choir, on percussion
  • The incomparable Ben Shive on piano, organ, and dulcimer
  • and the legendary Gabe Scott on guitars and dulcimer
And of course, the actual vocalists were great, with Andy trading out lead vocal duties with Randall, Derek, Jill and Pierce. And BGV's galore. As Andy noted, even if he hadn't been there, the remaining ensemble could have put on a remarkable show. I remember five years ago, when I heard that Andy was trying to finish up this crazy/cool idea of doing a Christmas show with all original material, telling the story of Christ, beginning in the Old Testament and culminating in His birth. It has been quite a privilege to see it unfold over these years, and I can only hope that these Nashville shows continue to be an annual Christmas tradition.

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