Concert Review: Gaither Christmas Homecoming, Grand Rapids, MI

On December 9th, I attended my first Homecoming. It was a memorable experience. Sadly, I was unable to take that many good photos of the actual stage, so I reverted to taking pictures of the screen, which yielded better results. There are a few “stage shots” in here (I particularly liked one or two of David Phelps, probably because of the high contrast lighting they did for his numbers), but most turned out blurry. I ended up scrapping half the photos I took, and of the ones I kept I didn’t have time to touch any up in Lightroom. So the shots in this slideshow are very rough. But I think they capture the spirit of the evening pretty well. And like I said, I owe most of them to the guys with the video cams. 😉

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Review:

As usual, Kevin Williams came out before the “concert concert” to play guitar—a couple carols from his new CD. Then Bill came up, and there was some comedy. He announced he was running for President and threw out ideas for his cabinet, including Gordon Mote for Secretary of Transportation. 😉

Then he introduced Buddy Greene, and after some banter, Buddy said, “I am the resident folk singer of this outfit, but when I get up here I feel like a rock star.” He kicked things off on the guitar with the country “Christmas Time’s A’Comin,” from his Christmas project Not Just Any Night (which is fantastic by the way—thanks Buddy for the free copy!) Becky and Sonya Isaacs joined him, and they had a great sound together. He performed it slower live than it is on the album, but it worked perfectly. After some dexterous guitar work, Buddy pulled out the harmonica and did some jamming with Gordon Mote on keys and Kevin on electric. It was an awesome way to kick off the night.

Then Buddy had the Martins come up to help everyone “get Pentecostal” on the next song (“God is With Us”), but not before eliciting some appropriately loud cheers of excitement for Christmas from the crowd. Buddy did a great black gospel impression including some great falsetto and growling. But I could tell he was hurting for some Brooklyn Tab backup, or at least Larnelle Harris. “And a hallelujah from all you white people out there…?”

Next, Charlotte Ritchie came on stage and led us in “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” I’d never heard the song before and immediately loved the way she sang it. What a beautiful, sweet voice she has. I could listen to it all day.

More comedy, including the obligatory shots of Rory Rigdon staring into space. Kevin: “You’re laughing, but that’s Bill’s campaign manager!”

Next up, the Martins, who I believe may have been the highlight of the night. At any rate, they seemed to leave the strongest impression with my dad, who doesn’t customarily listen to southern gospel. They kicked it off with “Go Tell,” then launched right into their acclaimed acapella arrangement of “The Doxology,” which always brings the house down. As comparatively low quality as my audio recording of the event was, playing it back still gives me goosebumps. Definitely a candidate for The Moment of the concert. From here they segued into one of their best songs, “The Promise.” I am always struck by how potent and well-written the lyrics for this song are.

More comedy, then Gordon Mote, whom you can’t not love. Like everyone else, he started with an up-tempo number, “Something to Shout About.” His piano chops were on full display. After this, he told a few funny stories about the kinds of things fans ask him that I’m actually not certain were made up. One was about a man in Toronto who came up and asked Gordon for directions. “So I pointed!” said Gordon. And my favorite was the one about the woman who came to Gordon’s table, stood there without saying anything and finally walked over to the guy working it to ask, “Does he shake hands?” (All of these voices were delivered impeccably by Gordon of course.) In reply, the table guy said with a twinkle, “I don’t know. Give him a treat and let’s see what happens!” Gordon played his arrangement of “Through it All” to close out his set. Honestly, I have never really liked this song, but Gordon brought it to life in a really compelling way with a heavy black gospel swing. The audience sang along.

Next came the Booth Brothers, who delivered a predictably flawless set: “I See Grace,” “He Saw It All” (done with a live band), “Trading This Old Cross For a Crown,”  then “In Christ Alone.” I didn’t get to see them do that one at the concert in the fall, so this was a pleasant surprise. (Though I guess it wasn’t a surprise, since most of the artists were singing some material from the new Gaither Homecomings.)

Break for a product pitch. Bill announced the CDs, and Rory was shown holding them up. It was humorous when he would get “mixed up.” The best moment was when Bill was pitching something else and Mark Lowry sneaked up behind Rory to wave his new solo project in everyone’s face. “I can’t believe he did that! Shameless self-promotion!” cried Kevin indignantly, proceeding to display his two new projects (thanks for the free copies Kevin!)

Bluegrass time with the Isaacs. A highlight of their set was when they showed Aedan Isaacs on the screen, chewing on something or other. Bill said, “There’s nothing in that honey. But go for it, go for it.” Then, “Enjoy that. One of these days, you’ll have to get a job.” The baby’s reaction was so perfectly timed that my dad was literally trying to argue that the footage had been shot beforehand and spliced in. I don’t know if the rest of us quite convinced him that baby Aedan really was there, sitting on Charlotte Ritchie’s lap and reacting in real time. They sang “It’s Christmastime Again,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Why Can’t We,” and “I Will Praise Him.” I always love to hear them sing that hymn acapella. Because it’s not as familiar to me as some other hymns, it strikes me fresh every time.

Then Bill introduced Gene McDonald singing “Lonesome Road.” He’s excellent! I’m not sure why people have said he’s overrated, but he has the complete package—smooth as silk and killer lows. It’s just a matter of time before he becomes the Gaither Vocal Band’s official bass singer.

Then, the moment everyone was probably waiting for… the Gaither Vocal Baaaaand! They started with a great choice: “Hide Thou Me,” for which Bill has taken to accompanying them on the piano. David was himself. Next they pulled out an unexpected tune from the Wes/Guy/Marsh lineup, “I Catch ‘Em, God Cleans ‘Em.” Mark Lowry sang the step-outs. It wasn’t the same without Guy but still fun.

Here there was some comedy with Bill and Mark where Mark asked the different denominations in the audience to identify themselves. “Church of Christ! You get to hear a PIANO. It’s almost like SINNING, isn’t it? [evil cackle]” My favorite moment was when Mark told the Catholics, “Oh, God bless you. Thank you for coming to hear Baptist Protestants sing. Tell Mary I said hey. We’re not allowed to talk to her. Tell her I said thanks for that song though, I appreciate it.”

Next was “My Journey to the Sky,” then “Greatly Blessed, Highly Favored.” Wes Hampton was in great form. Then… the moment I’d been secretly dreading… David Phelps, “Nessun Dorma.” Very impressive, of course, but still too frilly… that scooping thing he does on the word “splendera” still drives me batty. He had a nice new haircut though—Shirley Temple isn’t quite so envious anymore. And he certainly landed in the center of each note, that is, when he wasn’t deliberately dancing around it. I think in all fairness he may actually have been a little less “pop” than usual that night, a bit more true classical.

Then they gave Wes his moment with “He is Here.” Putting him and Phelps back to back was obviously intentional, but for me, it served as a reminder of why I’ve always preferred Wes to David. Even though Phelps is more talented, Wes appears to put more of his heart into what he sings. There’s such a feeling of authenticity about Wes that’s just not as obviously apparent when David sings. Though by that I certainly don’t mean to imply that David is a cold fish or Wes has no talent. So no letters, please! 🙂

Then it was time for Mark to sing “Mary, Did You Know?” Powerful moment, as always. I was expecting a standing ovation, but it was a relatively quiet crowd that night, so no standing-O for Mark, or even Phelps! (Shock.) The live band provided a great touch.

Michael English sang “Please Forgive Me,” and then David launched into “He’s Alive.” It was an appropriately exciting finale for the first half.

[Intermission]

Gordon Mote played a piano instrumental to start the second half. Meanwhile, Dad fixed Mom’s lighter. Then Bill led the audience in “Joy to the World.” Next was  “Come and See What’s Happening” (Gordon Mote sang the solo with some assorted female backup singers—perhaps Charlotte Ritchie and the Isaacs?) Bill played the Christmas Homecoming video along with this song and did so again with several others throughout the night.

Next was the Martins’ “Rejoice With Exceeding Great Joy.” It was the first time our family had heard this song, and it was a HUGE hit. We’ve been walking around the house singing it ever since. Mom asked a picky musical friend whether it sounded Jewish, and he said it was more just white jazz. 😉 The audience had fun blinking their lighters back and forth in time to make starlight (under Bill’s instruction of course). A local choir was singing by the stage, but they were virtually hidden in the shadows.

Bill and Buddy Greene had some harmonica fun at this point. Buddy showed off his mad skillz with a little stylistic sampler (Mark Lowry had a rather loud “stomach growl” during the prairie snippet and said “That’s what Michigan Mexican food will do to you!”) and then the famous Classical Medley. Then he sang “Little Drummer Boy” and forgot some of the words on the first verse. He stopped, looked dazed and said, “Oops, what happened?” “You forgot the words!” Mark offered helpfully. That was priceless, and I’m confident it was unplanned, partly because he also stumbled a little on later verses.

Then Mark Lowry did his recitation “Piper the Mouse” with some whimsical piano accompaniment from Gordon Mote, eliciting many “awwwwwws.” After this, Bill led the audience in “White Christmas.” Ronnie Booth sang a solo, and his voice was a perfect fit for the song. Then Bill played a video clip of Jake Hess singing a solo.

Then it was the Gaither Vocal Band’s turn to come back. They sang “Glorious Impossible,” originally on Give it Away but fitting perfectly with the Christmas spirit. It was written by my friend Wendy Wills, who also co-wrote the recent hit single “Jesus is Holding My Hand” with Lyn Rowell.

The Isaacs then did an acapella rendition of “Away in a Manger.” Afterwards Bill played a clip of Gloria Gaither doing a monologue from a Christmas homecoming. It set up the GVB’s next song, “Reaching.” They did this with just piano accompaniment. It worked brilliantly. Afterwards, Buddy’s harmonica led the audience on “Silent Night.” And FINALLY, David Phelps sang “O Holy Night,” which I had been hoping he would do all evening. He started in complete darkness, but I think it was the first key change when they switched to a pure white spotlight on him. Then after he hit the high note and everyone joined in, the whole stage lit up. It was pretty electrifying. As I’ve said before, I genuinely enjoy what he does with this song, even though he still can’t resist just a few “tweaks.” 😉 I think you have to see David Phelps live to really appreciate his talent. Nothing beats being in the same auditorium as he is when he unleashes “it.” I was astonished that it didn’t get a standing ovation.

So there you have it! My first Homecoming. I’ve already discussed my between- and after-concert chats with various artists like Buddy Greene, Gordon Mote, and Kevin Williams. Other members of my family also met artists like the Martins. Everyone we met was wonderfully kind and gracious. If “them Gaithers” are ever in your area, and for some reason you’ve never seen them, you should make an effort to do so. The variety of music they offer is incredible. Anyone is sure to find something he will like. That’s the beauty of a Homecoming. Certainly it’s a must for any southern gospel fan to experience, but even if that isn’t necessarily your bag, a Homecoming concert will incorporate elements of other genres like pop, folk, bluegrass and classical as well. So whether you have a passionate love for southern gospel or not, the bottom line is that Bill Gaither has a knack for picking good music.

And with that, I leave my readers for the Christmas weekend. I hope to be back some time next week. Until then, Merry Christmas to all!

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