Monday, October 31, 2005

Rita Springer: I Have to Believe - review

I usually review CDs and DVDs that I like simply because if I’m going to spend my bucks on something I pretty much know I’m going to like it going in. This will be an exception. I’m not wild about the new Rita Springer album, I Have to Believe.

I liked one of Springer’s earlier albums so when I saw that her new album was 1) on sale, 2) produced by Margaret Becker and Nathan Nockels (both very good signs), 3) on sale, 4) included a *free* Best of Rita Springer CD and 5) on sale I figured I could not go wrong. I was wrong.

On first listen I just wasn’t grabbed by this CD at all. The songs struck me as unremarkable and, when I finally got to a song that grabbed me, I realized that it was a cover of a Delirious song. But, I figured, give it time – maybe I was just in a bad mood when I listened the first time. Maybe I was expecting it to be different than it was and wasn’t being fair. So I waited a week, played the CD when I wasn’t paying attention once and then listened intently again. I liked it even less the second time.

The first song starts out nicely with gospel / blues piano and some bluesy soulful singing but aside from that, the melodies overall don’t grab me and the lyrics are really pretty shallow. After hearing Sarah Groves and U2 I want a little more from my lyrics than I’m getting from Springer. (Frankly, even Paul McCartney’s lyrics are superior – well, maybe not “English Tea” but at least that song has a killer arrangement.) I think she’s sincere – it’s just that she misses the boat. The point of “Love with Justice” is that Rita Springer is “in love with justice” whatever that means. You can’t imagine what “My Hero” is about - well, maybe you can. It's about how Jesus is my hero. The problem is that the songs never get past the kind of sloganeering that these songs indicate. So, if you’re looking for some new great worship songs – go listen to an old Matt Redman or Chris Tomlin album.

Preaching to the Choir: A Rant Against Bad Preaching

Mary at Preaching to the Choir has an absolutely wonderful post about bad preaching that you should read. Really. It's amazing.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Concert for Bangladesh

It’s been over 34 years since the Concert for Bangladesh. I was just 17 at the time – in fact, it was something like two days after I had gotten my drivers license. I lived in NJ, only about 20 miles from the site of the Concert but I seem to remember not knowing much about it until after the fact. I do remember spending a lot of time listening to All Things Must Pass, which I had gotten for Christmas the year before, and I was also a fan of Cream and Eric Clapton. I played his first solo album a lot back then. I also played the album from the concert and I picked up the CD when it came out some 10 years ago.

So it was with great anticipation that I watched the DVD of the concert for Bangladesh this morning. I certainly have no issues with the transfer from film to DVD – it looks and sounds just fine. I also have not yet watched the extras – I’ve read that the 45 minute documentary on the making of the concert and the film is almost worth the price of the DVD all by itself and I’m looking forward to watching it. I’d seen the film only once before in a theater and, to my knowledge, it had not been released on VHS so this is an occasion for George Harrison fans, of which I number myself one.

So here are some random thoughts now that I’ve seen this concert again after all these years:
  • Technology has come a long way. Things are better in tune now; musicians can hear themselves and each other on stage much better.

  • Bob Dylan had to adjust his own mike stand before he could play. That wouldn’t have happened today – it would all be set before he went out there.

  • The film crew was making it up as they went along – it took nearly the whole verse that Leon Russell sang in “Beware of Darkness” for them and for the light crew to find him!

  • Rock was a lot more countercultural back then! Now rock music is all about show business – back then, the musicians hardly acknowledged the crowd – that was too much like being one of those old fogey entertainers.

  • Eric Clapton was not in a good place in his life – he almost could have been absent on the stage. Even his solo in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sounds like he’s hardly trying.

  • Billy Preston was cool.

  • Ravi Shankar smiled a lot more during his set than I expected him to based on just listening to the album for all these years.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bono rates the U2 albums

One of the more fascinating parts of the generally fascinating Rolling Stone interview with Bono is his discussion of each of the U2 albums. Bono is, not unexpectedly, perhaps harsher on his lyrics than I would be although his comments often strike me as being really perceptive regarding each album’s relative strengths and weaknesses.

One comment that really struck me was about How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Bono said (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have the interview in front of me) that it was perhaps their strongest collection of songs but that the whole was not more than the sum of its parts. Bono found that particularly annoying. (For a point of reference, he said that Achtung Baby was a counterexample – the whole of that album is more than the sum of its parts.)

Now I really like Atomic Bomb as an album. I agree that the collection of songs is amazing. But do I agree with Bono’s assessment? I’m not sure. As I thought about it though I started to think of albums that are better as albums then they are as individual songs. I immediately thought of Sgt. Pepper (Beatles). Then as I thought more I came up with Tommy (the who), Layla (Eric Clapton / Derek and the Dominos), Band on the Run (Paul McCartney), Plastic Ono Band (John Lennon), Beyond Nature (Phil Keaggy) and Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits).

But what about other albums I would also consider great? Are there other great albums that are more like a collection of great songs than a really coherant whole album? I think I would put one of my all-time favorite albums in this category – The Beatles’ Revolver. Who’s Next and Close to the Edge might be other examples.

So perhaps there are two ways to have a great album: 1) have such a killer selection of songs that the album reaches greatness just by the sheer heft of the material or 2) have an album that works as a whole, so that each song is better because of the company that it is in. I’m thinking of albums that really knock me out here – all of the albums that I’ve listed are albums that I put in some of the all-time-great-album category and, surprisingly, they seem to fall into both of these camps.

I’d love to hear some other examples of great albums and which of these categories readers think they fall into.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks, Bravery and Injustice

Rosa Parks’ death reminded me last night of how one person’s small but brave act can sometimes have consequences far beyond what one can imagine. The thing is, the actual thing she did – sitting – is not a big deal. It’s the context that makes it remarkable. I also think of the brave young man who stood up to the tank in Tiananmen Square for example – his brave act also had a ripple effect. He just didn’t move and, because of his bravery, moved many many people. Small things done to combat injustice can turn out to be big things. Sometimes we might think we have no power because the problems are too large for us to deal with. I'm not suggesting that the unknown student in Tiananmen Square changed everything in China. I'm not suggesting that there is no longer racial inequality in the U.S. because of Rosa Parks. But I am suggesting that their small acts of bravery were an important and necessary first step toward righting a great wrong.

I wonder which everyday injustices I am not standing up to. I wonder what things I should be stubborn about. I wonder what consequences my small actions can have.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Bono Interview podcast

Rolling Stone has a podcast of their interview with Bono available for download (along with instructions for how to set up your computer to get it) and it is, so far at least, a fascinating look at this conversation between Bono and Jann Wenner, longtime RS editor. I found many things in this discussion interesting, especially how, at times, Wenner seems unable to grasp some of the spiritual concepts that Bono was holding out. Bono suggests that when Dylan sang "how many roads must a man walk down before they call him a man" he meant it as a rhetorical question however, as a young man Bono wanted the answers so he asked God these rhetorical questions. Bono had to explain that a couple of times before Wenner got it - it seems that asking God questions that you really want the answers to was something that young Bono thought was a great idea and Wenner has never considered.

My biggest disappointment with the interview, however, is that when Bono is talking about the Psalms of David as the blues he starts to reference the song "Wake Up Dead Man" and quotes the first few lines. It sounds like he's ready to say more about this fascinating song (which may have been based on Psalm 44 - at least that is the suggestion made in .Get Up Off Your Knees) when Wenner interrupts him with a question about the Christian group that Bono, Edge and Larry found themselves involved with. It could be that Bono was finished with his discussion of "Wake Up Dead man" and that Wenner, reading the body language jumped in appropriately to keep him answering questions. But I wish I knew what else Bono was ready to say about that.

For anyone interested in U2's music or in Bono the person this interview is a must-hear.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Lazy Blue Tunas blog

The Lazy Blue Tunas now have their own blog!  Look here for future Tuna updates and setlists.

Lazy Blue Tunas - setlist - 10/21/05

Lazy Blue Tunas
Calvin College Class of 1975 Reunion

The Tunas played at Calvin College last night and had a great time with some of our old friends at the class of ’75 reunion.

It’s All Been Done
Look Thru Any Window
Change the World
No Matter What
Hotel California
Handle With Care
Pleasant Valley Sunday
Golden Slumbers +
I Want You Back
Got You on My Mind

New updates on the Tunas very own weblog at

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Add to the Beauty - Sara Groves

Two weeks ago I missed seeing Sara Groves in concert.  I was disappointed.  I almost talked to her.  I could have but I didn’t have anything clever to say since I had missed her set.  Mostly what I wanted to say was “hey, I’m Meredith’s Dad!” (because Meredith had just finished playing with Jars of Clay) or I thought about saying “I’ve mostly given up on CCM except for a very few artists and you’re one of them” but I heard somebody else say that to Steve Mason (from Jars of Clay) and it sounded really fan-like and I really didn’t want to be “that guy.”   So I just smiled and walked on past her.  I don’t even think she saw me smile.  

But I have liked Sara Groves ever since her album All Right Here came out a few years ago.  That album was just about perfect – the songs evoked a wonderful sense of caring for other people, a dependence on God’s grace and a gentle fragility that allowed the listener to feel like we knew people just like those that Sara was singing about.  The beautiful songs were complimented by Groves’ voice and Nate Sabin’s production that allowed us to hear all the emotion that the songs deserved.  

Her follow-up to that album, The Other Side of Something was again produced by Nate Sabin with some production by Charlie Peacock, but it suffered from a common disorder in artists that have a good quirky record -  popification (see my earlier posting about that term).  It was like someone – maybe the record company – told her she needed to be more mainstream in order to have a hit.  I don’t know why she went down that path but she almost lost me.  Sure, there were some good songs on there (like “Roll to the Middle” and the fabulously-funny-but-too-close-to-home “All I Need”) but many of the songs were too obvious and the production too slick.

So when I saw her new album, Add to the Beauty, I was cautiously hopeful.  So cautious, in fact, that I passed it up when I saw it on her merchandise table at the concert.  After thinking about it for a couple of days, though, I picked it up at a local store.  I’m really glad I did.  The old Sara is back.  I’m not sure the songs are quite as strong as on All Right Here, but they’re close (and, truth be told, that album set the bar pretty high).  Groves once again goes back to one of her favorite themes – that the love of God is needed to help us love each other.  In Add to the Beauty she doesn’t use a lyrical sledgehammer to make her point but does it gently with directness, grace and sometimes even humor, as in the delightful “To the Moon.”  With Brown Bannister in the production chair this time she seems to be back in a place where production doesn’t overwhelm the songs or scream “Look!  I’m trying to have a hit!”  Groves and Bannister hit just the right balance between art and accessibility.  With this album Groves shows that she has the potential to be an artist with a long and interesting career.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Yahweh and U2 in concert

I’ve been thinking again about U2 since I’m finally reading Bill Flanagan’s excellent book U2 at the End of the World.  I’m struck by a number of things (aside from how little Bono seems to sleep when he’s on tour) but especially the way the band continues to tinker with their show to make it more say what want it to say and to react to what’s going on in the world and in their lives.

That made, for me, a connection to the song “Yahweh”, one of my favorites from How To Dismantle and Atomic Bomb.  I had some questions about the use of the Muslim crescent and the Jewish star a friend helped me sort through that.  What I haven’t seen anywhere, though, is the way the band changed the last line the night I saw them and, I assume, had been for the entire leg of the tour – perhaps for the whole tour.  The line on the album is “take this heart and make it break.”  An allusion that most people with a Bible background understand – PS 51:17 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

U2 usually uses “Yahweh” as the last song for the evening coming right after they sing “40,” a version of Psalm 40 with a bit of Psalm 6 thrown in for good measure. In concert, though, when I saw them, Bono sang “take this city’s heart and keep it safe,” That turn of the phrase turns the song from a personal confession (and quite a remarkable one at that) into a benediction. Bono once again changes the lyrics to fit the setting and does it in a way that blesses everyone.  I really like this band.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Water Walking

Father Ron Hatton wrote a post and here is where my thoughts went after reading it.  It’s not a direct response but it’s what I thought about.

Ron’s post reminds me of the talk I did this weekend.  We had a baptism in our church – we baptize infants – and I always get to present, on behalf of the congregation, a baptism candle and give a little talk while I do it.  I’ve done this for over 14 years now and I’ve almost never repeated myself because scripture is full of stories of the covenant.

This Sunday I told the story of Jesus walking on the water and of how Peter went out to him but started sinking.  Jesus reached down and pulled him up saying “you of little faith.  Why did you doubt?”  There is no answer given because the answer is that we are all of little faith.  We can’t get up on the water by ourselves.   Unless Jesus reaches down and pulls us out we can’t do it.  That same Jesus reaches down to all of us and in this baptism we are reminded that he is reaching down to little Alden as well.

It is only through the grace of Christ Jesus that we can do the good that we do.  It is through the covenant that Christ comes to us – not because we deserve it, but because he chooses to.  Our good works, whatever they are, are only our response to this gift of grace.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Meredith's Jars of Clay Adventure

Yesterday, around 11 AM, my daughter Meredith was practicing with her string quartet in the Calvin Fine Arts Center when someone came in to the practice room and asked if someone could play with Jars of Clay for the night’s concert.  Both violinists said they didn’t play by ear but Meredith, who had been playing along with “Like a Child” since 8th grade said, sure I’ll do it!  Soon Dan Hazeltine, the JoC lead singer came by and said “want to play with us tonight?”  “I have to play at a wedding at 5 but I could make the 8 o’clock show.”  “Great, soundcheck at noon – see you then.”

So Meredith quickly calls a couple of people and does the soundcheck where they suggest she play on three songs.  She does and then goes to get ready for the wedding.  We meet her at the wedding (which was very nice – congratulations, Jen and Steve!) and then we all went to the Prince Conference Center for the reception.  Meredith left a early (and so did we) and she hung out backstage with Dan, Matt, Steve and Charley while Sara Groves and Chris Rice opened the show.

Then Jars of Clay came on, did a couple of songs and then brought Meredith out to a huge welcome from her friends and family in the audience (it was a sold-out show) and launched into “Like a Child” which Meredith nailed.  It was like one of those dreams you have when the band says “hey come play with us” and then you do and then you’re great and the band raves about how good you are.  Yeah, that really happened.  Meredith played another song and then came back for the last encore.

Afterward we hung out with Meredith and her new friends for a while.  We were all impressed with what nice guys all four of the guys in the band are.  They treated Meredith like a special guest and talked about what fun they had playing with her in the band.  They jokingly said they were going to take her with them to Wisconsin for the next show. What a great night.  

EDIT: Here's what Chimes - Calvin's Student newspaper wrote:
A highlight of the show was when Calvin freshman Meredith Keeley received the honor of playing violin onstage with the contemporary combo. The band picked her out of a practice room, plopped her on stage and marveled as she played magnificently.

The crowd went wild to see one of their own performing with the Christian-rock legends, but Keeley never lost her cool and fit in perfectly, moving to the music and playing off of the other members beautifully.

Read the whole review here.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Cream: Royal Albert Hall, May 2005

Carolos Santana was once asked what he played when he practiced. Was it riffs, chords, songs? He replied that he just played one note over and over again until it plugged in to the universe.

That’s what I was thinking on the way in to work this morning with the new Cream album on the car stereo. Cream, the supergroup from the 60s with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker got together again for a series of concerts at Royal Albert Hall in May 2005. The CD and DVD of those concerts was released this past week and I’ve been enjoying them immensely.

To hear Clapton surrounded merely by a bass and drums puts him back in a setting he has not been in for quite some time. Clapton always assembles an outstanding band but he always has keyboards or some other guitarist (or two) to support him. In a power trio like Cream we get to hear what Clapton can do when he’s responsible for filling more of the sonic space again and it is like we really get to hear him play now. And it’s worth it.

While this geriatric version of Cream may not play with the fire that they did in the 60s they really nail a couple of the songs and seem to have replaced the musical excesses they were sometimes guilty of in the old days with a more measured approach to their old songs. Old songs like “Born Under A Bad Sign,” “Politician” and “Sleepy Time Time” get wonderful readings from this batch of geezers that shows that they still understand how to play this type of blues-flavored rock with authority.

But it was a song that I don’t typically associate with Cream that really got to me this morning, the old blues standard “Stormy Monday,” reworked here as a Clapton tour-de-force. Clapton shows on this song that he is a master at this sort of blues interpretation, both as a singer and a guitarist. And for his solo he bends up to a note and hits it something like 20 times – apparently he waited for it to plug into the universe. It did.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Give me a 505

I used to write songs a lot.  Back in my high school and early college days I would crank them out like crazy.  It’s been a while since I’ve done that but I’ve wanted to again – partly just because but partly because it would be cool for my band to do a few original numbers as long as they’re good.

I also enjoyed helping Meredith edit a song she wrote and I thought I really added a lot to it and convinced myself that I was pretty good at that.  So last night I was visiting my father-in-law at the nursing home and while we’re sitting with him I heard a man from the next room crying out in a loud voice.  He would say the same thing about 20 times in a row and then change it to something else.  I wrote them down because I thought they’d make a great song:

“Please, somebody give me a chance.”
“Give me a 505.”  (pronounced five-oh-five)
“Somebody get me out of here.”

I have no idea what "give me a 505" means but it was said so loudly and with such a mournful tone that I thought it had to be preserved somehow.  So I’m working on it.

Monday, October 03, 2005

October - U2

Here is a nice reflection on U2's album October. I appreciate her take on the album as a whole as well as some of her reflections on specific songs. If you're a U2 fan (and if not, why not?) then this is worth checking out.

(And remember that U2 Sermons always has good stuff)

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Collision - David Crowder Band

Thursday night I got a copy of the new David Crowder CD, A Collision, and I have played it a couple of times since then.  There is much to like here and much that is really interesting.  It is too soon to really write a review of this – I hope to write more later – but already Bethany and Meredith and I have had IM conversations about it.  Bethany called it a postmodern album which makes a certain amount of sense to me.  Bryan has been telling me how cool Sufjan Stevens is and Crowder covers one of his songs on the album and, yeah, there is a lot of emotion in that song.

The big sound this band makes never seems to have the definition that, say, U2 has when they really go for it.  So I like them best when they use a bit more of their dynamic range (which they do often on this album) and when they’re at their most whimsical – which Crowder seems to be almost continuously.

Crowder is getting some attention for this album – it was the #2 downloaded album on itunes this week!  I’m looking forward to further talks about it with my kids and lots more listens in the car.

EDIT: Bethany has a nice review up now on her blog.