The Pilgrim’s Pod Radio Hour

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Howdy friends. It’s been a while.

Actually, it’s been a really long time. But I plan to remedy that soon. But for any who’ve been waiting for something, anything, to be posted here, here is a project I’m working on with my friend Will Mackerras. It draws its inspiration from A Prairie Home Companion but has a bit of an Aussie flavour due to Will.  But with a Canadian bandleader, yours truly, and a cast and crew from at least 3 other countries, it promises to develop in some interesting directions.  Let me know what you think.

Talk to you soon.

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Kelly Joe Phelps – Return and Progress

I know that for some of you reading this, the name Kelly Joe Phelps will be completely unfamiliar. That is a personal failing on my part. I’ve played his music for many of you but probably not all. I apologise. Allow me to make this introduction for you.

Everyone, meet Kelly Joe. He is a brilliant musician and someone you should know about. I first heard about him through Acoustic Guitar magazine around 15 years ago. At the time, I just heard that he was a lap-slide guitarist who played blues and I paid little attention – I just wasn’t interested in blues of any sort at the time (that’s another story). But about a year later I saw that he was playing the Vancouver Folk Festival and I decided to check him out. I found some of his music online and the first thing I heard was this:

Doxology

Needless to say, I was impressed by the quality of the music as well as the subject matter of many of his songs and I started buying records and concert tickets. Fortunately, he lives in the Pacific Northwest and so was in Vancouver about once a year. Over the years, his style transformed from instrumental virtuosity to a more song-oriented direction and the slide guitar disappeared to be replaced by a very accomplished fingerpicking technique. His lyric writing became very evocative and he started playing with other musicians who added greater depth and texture to his songs. Next he recorded a solo instrumental record filled with stellar playing but which confused his record company; they seemed to think it was unmarketable. On that note, they may have had a point since some of the songs are rather challenging listening and hint at his background playing bass in Seattle’s free jazz scene. But, as I said, the playing is amazing and the effort is well worth it. Finally, he formed a duet with singer/rhythm guitarist Corinne West for which he mostly played guitar and sang harmony vocals.

So I was intrigued a few weeks ago to find that Kelly Joe had released a new record late in the summer. I obviously like some of his records more than others but his work is always of a very high level and worthy of attention. I was not quite prepared for what I heard: slide guitar and gospel-blues… but with a bit of a difference. The slide guitar was not lap-style but rather bottleneck – a new development for him. The gospel-blues, however, was the big surprise; there was something…else going on here. He had recorded and even written gospel-based songs before on his early records but, as amazing as those songs are, they sounded like he was adopting a style. These new songs sound like they’re his. So I did a little research and found out that he has recently come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Kelly Joe’s website, www.kellyjoephelps.net, includes not only lyrics to the new songs but also the Bible verses on which he’d been reflecting as he wrote them (oddly, those quotations are all from the King James version).  It’s obvious that he has been doing a fair amount of prayer and study and he says as much in some of his interviews.  Some of the writers aren’t sure quite what to make of this new direction and at least one writer states that whatever these new songs mean, they’re not speaking about a religious conversion!  But whatever people do think about faith in Jesus, they are unanimous in praising Phelps for his astounding musicality.

So go and listen to this record.  Check out a new-to-you artist and, for some of you, a new brother.  And until you get a chance to hear the whole thing, enjoy this:

Goodbye to Sorrow

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Soul Mining by Daniel Lanois

Hello again.  A few weeks ago, Daniel Lanois was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame.  The CBC commemorated the event with a series of web broadcasts of Lanois being interviewed by Rich Terfry (broadcaster, recording artist, and one of the things I miss about not living in Canada) about 5 recordings he’s been a part of.  The interviews can be found here and are really worth viewing.

I thought I would commemorate this occasion by writing a short review of Daniel Lanois’s 2010 book “Soul Mining: A Musical Life”.  Lanois, you may know, is a music artist and producer of some of the biggest records of the last 20+ years.  Think of the best of U2’s records, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind, Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, Willie Nelson’s Teatro, and the list could (and does) go on.  On top of all of that, his own recordings are masterworks of impressionism, tone and vibe.  Even if you don’t like the songs, you have to admit that his records sound amazing!

For those of you who have come across Lanois’s 2003 SXSW keynote speech, you may be a little sceptical of his writing style.  That speech (included in the book) was as much beat poetry as anything else.  He didn’t answer the questions that people would have expected; rather he seemed to ask questions more than answer them.  That said, the speech was wonderful in that it delved into the roots of his inspiration and motivation; the questions leading the hearer to ask their own.  I’ve read it numerous times.

While Lanois’s memoir does not fall into the category of poetry, this is a much less focussed work than many would prefer.  This isn’t an insider tell-all, though one does get a glimpse into the artistic process of many of the artists he has worked with.  This is also not a recording how-to, though the techies amongst us may be intrigued by his brief asides on the merits of one mixing console over another.  So what is it?  Well…

Lanois on ‘Soul Mining’

The author is simply telling his own story, seemingly as it comes to him as one memory triggers another.  This can be very entertaining as his thoughts jumble together to give a large and impressionistic overview of his perspective on his world.  For instance the opening chapter contains thoughts on such wide-ranging topics as his childhood in French-speaking Quebec and English-speaking Hamilton, notebooks and diagrams covering every aspect of the recording of a particular track, how he got interested in music, the genesis of his recording career, Rick James, Raffi, equal temperament, Brian Eno, steel guitar, and U2.  Yes, it is as chaotic as it sounds but it is entertaining.

One of the drawbacks of this approach, which settles down somewhat after chapter 1, is that there is little sense of progression or development in his ideas.  There are LOTS of ideas in this book but I kept wanting to ask, “What year are we in?” as thoughts unfold in regard to Eno, U2, Robbie Robertson, Dylan, and the Neville Brothers.  Since he has worked with some of these artists multiple times over many years it was hard to know if a story or conversation was with Bono in 1983 or 2009.  It was all slightly disorienting: at one moment the reader thinks the time is the late-90s in California only to discover that it is actually the late-70s in Hamilton, Ontario.  As I said, there are lots of ideas and perspectives on many subjects but the way he came into those perspectives is often not clear.  But maybe giving us a linear storyline would betray the fluid nature of the development of ideas.  Few of us have just one thread for an idea or perspective that we can then trace back to one individual source.  Maybe Lanois’s approach speaks to the way thoughts evolve and change direction over time.  Again, the word ‘impressionism’ comes to mind.  Lanois isn’t trying to write a step-by-step version of his life but rather a story told in such a way as to inspire.

And inspire it does!  Though the stories of his childhood are overly romanticised, one cannot shake the sense that he is an ordinary kid.  Displaced and from a broken home he might even fall into the category of underdog.  Yet this kid has drive and an ability to focus.  That, and a strong dose of right place/right time, has enabled him to become one of the great producers of all time, as well as an accomplished artist in his own right. And in the way he tells his story, he makes the reader believe that the same is possible for them – whatever it is that one wants to achieve.

This book, like his music, is full of heart and soul.  He’s got it in spades and he encourages it in everyone.  To quote from the last few lines of his SXSW speech:

I invite everyone here this morning to ignite – reignite – or just plain old turn up the flame in what you believe in and get to the top of the mountain you see

invention is in your brain – and that never-ending commodity is in the bottom of your heart –

it’s called passion.

Read this book; it’ll help you up your own mountain.

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Still Advent

It’s getting closer.  And even the most Liturgical among us are starting to move into Christmas.  But it’s still Advent.

I wanted to add one more Advent-themed post, this time in the form of a song I wrote last year.  Unfortunately I haven’t had opportunity to record it yet but I’m hoping that the lyrics, even out of their musical context, will provide something worthy of reflecting upon as we watch and wait.

 

Waiting Again – Paul Enns


Yeah, we’re waiting again as we sing our songs of joy

We’re waiting again as we celebrate this boy

Waiting for wolves to lie down with lambs

For crooked roads to be made straight

Mountains razed down and valleys raised up

Goodness and love to cast out fear and hate

We’re waiting again just like all the years before

We’re waiting again hoping for a little more

More of what the angels sang

When they proclaimed this birth

More goodwill to all, more favour of God

More peace on earth

Peace with God and peace with Man

What that all means I just don’t understand

How can a baby boy be all that the angels sing

Unless he grew up and changed everything.

 

So we’re waiting again as we’re looking for that Day

We’re waiting again – we’re told it’s on its way

And it seems it’s been such a long, long time

We get tired and we get bored

But then the lightening flashes and we catch a glimpse

Of just how great is the Lord

So we pray for peace and we pray that Light

Might dispel the darkness of the night

And we work for justice and we speak Good News

And we give what we have for others to use

We forgive their sin and repent of our own

We give thanks for mercy wherever it is shown

We rejoice with the laughing, and we mourn with the weeping

And through it all we pray for faith to keep believing…

…while we’re waiting again…

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Advent Prayer by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Lord Jesus,

Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.

We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.

We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.

We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.

We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.

We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.

To you we say, “Come Lord Jesus!”

Amen.

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Perfectly in Tune: Value Added?

I’m sitting in my office on a cold, bright morning listening to the GREAT new Joe Henry record, “Reverie”.

A new Joe Henry record, actually any Joe Henry record, makes for very good listening but a new one is always a special experience – full of beauty and surprise.  His songs are amazingly full of emotional depth, humour and brilliant wordplay.  They are played by genius musos (often jazzers) and produced (by Henry himself) with a particular vibe which he describes as “the smoke in the room”.

GO BUY THIS RECORD!!!!

But to the topic at hand, which is not entirely disconnected from a Joe Henry record.  You see, Henry is not a great singer as some would understand greatness.  He has likened his singing voice to a character actor; it may not be to everyones taste but is valuable in communicating what it needs to (if I understand his metaphor).  And the topic of the day is the voice and what or how it communicates.

I have a good friend (who shall remain nameless for the present) who gets very riled at the mention of Norah Jones.  My friend’s contention is that there is no way that Jones should have sold so many records or be considered a good artist because she sings flat.  This friend, herself a very gifted singer, is rather attuned to precision of pitch in singers and comments on it regularly whilst listening to music.  I have, on a number of occasions, been surprised at her critique of artist I really like because I hadn’t noticed.  Precision in pitch isn’t something I’m overly concerned about though, as a singer, I do notice rather obvious examples of singers for whom pitch is a rather… shall we say fluid, concept.

Take Brandon Flowers, the singer of The Killers for example.  There is a lot I like about The Killers music: the energy of Queen, the romanticism of Springsteen, the (attempted) grandeur of U2.  But Flowers’ pitch is all over the place as he sings.   In case you’ve never heard him, listen to this example.

When You Were Young

I’m sure you can hear what I’m talking about.  Yet it works somehow, doesn’t it?  I always wonder about why this is when I listen to this record.  There is so much music out there for which being this pitchy would be unacceptable.  So why is it okay here?  Is it that rock music is flexible (or powerful) enough to incorporate an out-of-tune singer?  How does it work?

Another example is a song called The Judgement from Solomon Burke’s record “Don’t Give Up On Me”.

The Judgement

Solomon Burke was a gospel/soul singer and preacher for most of his life.  This record (produced by Joe Henry) and the follow-up “Nashville” revived his career and displayed his incredible voice in all of it’s aging splendour.  But this particular song (written by Elvis Costello), features Burke displaying little if any regard for tuning precision.  But the performance is incredible.  The world-weariness of the storyteller comes to the fore even while he sings with great power and conviction.  And though he may have just learned the song earlier in the day that it was recorded, he manages to own it.  When he died just over a year ago (in an Amsterdam airport while on tour), the world lost another one of the greats.

So how does this work?  These two examples are perhaps much more obvious than most but they do illustrate that one can be quite out of tune and still put in a very solid vocal performance worthy of repeated listening.  And clearly, pitch perfection is not necessarily a high value of the masses if my friend’s assessment of Norah Jones is correct.

When you listen to singers what is the most important for you?  Correct pitch?  A pleasing tone?  Emotional resonance?  The right ‘feel’?  Something else?

Please discuss.  I’d love to hear your comments.

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Legends of Gospel Music

Hello again everyone.

Well it’s been quite a week at All Souls.  Most notable, of course, was the funeral service of John Stott.  Parts of the service were recorded and they will be well worth a listen.  The welcome, songs, tributes, readings, and sermon all combined as a fitting tribute to a man whose life was about honouring Jesus.  Details of the recording will be on the All Souls website when they become available.

But the day before the funeral were our regular services.  However, the morning services weren’t regular at all.  We were pleased to host the London Community Gospel Choir, in an abbreviated incarnation.  They were amazing! – just ask anyone who was there.  It was a morning not to be missed.

During the services, in my intro into the next song after the choir had sung, I mentioned a couple of the biggest names in gospel music and, while members of the choir nodded knowingly, I realise that those names were entirely lost on many members of All Souls.  This ought to be remedied because those whom I mentioned are certainly worth knowing about.  To that end, I give you a few songs by two of the legends of gospel music.

Let’s start with possibly the greatest gospel singer of all time, Mahalia Jackson.

I’m Goin’ to Live the Life I Sing About In My Song (Live)

This song, in my opinion, is a great introduction to her music.  We hear her power and conviction in every note of this one.  It’s also a great song because of what it says.  Sadly, many gospel singers did not share the sentiments expressed in this song and the touring companies of these performers were often not known for particularly holy lifestyles.

The second singer I mentioned is Sam Cooke.  You may know his name from such early 6os light pop hits as “You Send Me”, “Cupid” or “Twistin’ the Night Away”.  But before those mainstream successes he was a star of gospel music as the young featured soloist for The Soul Stirrers.

I Have A Friend Above All Others – Soul Stirrers

The first 10 seconds alone are worth the price of admission here.  The control and subtlety of his voice is incredible! – and especially since these were his opening notes at a live show.  Gives me chills every time!  This is the first of three Soul Stirrers songs that were performed at the legendary 1955 Shrine Concert which brought together some of the greatest gospel artists onto the same stage.  Sam and the Soul Stirrers played 3 songs over about 20 minutes and brought down the house (while, the recordings prove, raising the temperatures of many young women) with an 8-and-a-half minute version of “Nearer to Thee”.  It’s worth hearing for yourself (iTunes will be glad to help out).

Well, consider that a very brief introduction to these two giants of 20th century music.  But let me leave you with one more song; this time a studio recording of the Soul Stirrers.

Must Jesus Bear This Cross Alone

Please put aside the rather interesting theological perspective for a moment.  The African-American church (as seen through some of their songs) does have a fascinating practice of understanding biblical events as happening in a sort of “trans-linear” timeframe so that they see themselves as full participants in the event.  But that is perhaps a subject for a later blog (if not a PhD. dissertation).

What I want you to focus on is Cooke’s musicality when he comes in with “Amazing Grace…”.  His phrasing, tone, and melodic/harmonic improvisation over a fairly standard gospel quartet tune is so inventive.  These phrases and melodies go on to serve him well as he brings them into “secular” music within a few years, thus essentially inventing soul music.  Just take a listen to “You Send Me” to hear some of the same trademark lines… albeit smoothed out a little – mainstream radio in the late 50s/early 60s wasn’t prepared for a raw gospel belter.

Well there you have it.  Mahalia and Sam.  Two of the legends of Gospel music.  There is lots of music of theirs around to dig into so have at it.

Until next time…

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