april 2009

An all-star Gaither Vocal Band reunion in progress: (from left) Gary McSpadden, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod, David Phelps, Wes Hampton (partially hidden), Marshall Hall
Photo by Emily Sutherland for www.gaither.com

Gaither Music Group
Executive Producers: Bill Gaither, Barry Jennings, Bill Carter
Producer: Bill Gaither
Director: Doug Stuckey
Running Time: 120 minutes, each volume

Typical of Bill Gaither's video productions, this warm-hearted reunion of all the past and present members of the respected Gaither Vocal Band gather together in the Gaither Studios in Alexandria, Indiana, to reminiscence about their years together and give it their all for four hours' worth of spiritual testimony in song on two DVDs. There seems to be nothing but good will and fond memories among these men and women, and when it comes to the heart of the matter—the songs and the singing—they're all in peak form. Also typical of Gaither's productions, the music is buttressed, and lent context, by his between-songs interviews with his co-conspirators, who recount their most memorable moments in the GVB or provide anecdotal evidence of the "bump" given their careers by being in the group. Bass singer Jon Mohr, for example, has been one of the most prolific songwriters in GVB history, and he's one of gospel's most accomplished storytellers-in-song. He has a star turn on Volume One with a slinky, blues-drenched version of his classic, "Rumormill," with the rest of the guests providing the ghostly backing harmonies, but before he performs he tells how Gaither influenced his own approach to songwriting by insisting on meaningful lyrics that "have a point"—hence "Rumormill," a cautionary warning about the destructive potential of loose lips. Jim Murray, who goes back to the early '60s with Gaither, well before the formation of the GVB, recalls the groundbreaking early Gaither songs, which brought a pop flavor and contemporary rhythmic drive to traditional southern gospel quartet singing. One of the most distinctive vocalists in GVB history, Larnelle Harris—he of the otherworldly high notes that any doo-wop singer of the '50s would have been proud to call his own—tells how after being asked to join the Group he approached the job with some trepidation. "I go back to that day every once in awhile," he says with a slight laugh. "Especially after I got in there and I was the guy assigned to sing the high note. You know what I mean? And I started looking at the 'graveyard list' of all the tenors and I wasn't so sure it was a good idea." For his part, Gaither remembers how other singers invited to join the Group were all too eager to get to the first gig, "but with you, it was a major 'sell' job!" That it was worth it is illustrated by the succeeding performance Harris gives of "Can't Stop Talking About Him," a song about salvation and personal growth sung to a classic '80s R&B arrangement not all that dissimilar to what was scoring big on the pop charts for Jeffrey Osborne at that time. Harris has lost none of his personable style or sure sense of phrasing as a dramatic device to advance the story—and towards the end of the extended workout he rolls out some high-pitched Al Green stylings—and who would have guessed that the assembled multitude could provide such silky, smooth groove vocal support? He had served notice earlier that he had come to play, though: on Volume One's second number, "Your First Day In Heaven," Harris cuts loose with a piercing alto cry that almost gets into dog whistle category as Gordon Mote (who stands out on almost every performance here with his soulful keyboard work) contributes some rousing honky-tonk piano behind the joy-filled singers.

Amidst a raft of exceptional performances, Michael English steals the show with his emotional testimony in words and songs during the Gaither Vocal Band Reunion
Photo by Emily Sutherland for www.gaither.com

One of the finest vocal assemblages in Gaither Vocal Band history featured both Harris and Michael English, the latter going on to become a gospel superstar before an adultery scandal nearly submarined his career in 1994 at the moment he was taking home four Dove Awards, necessitating an arduous personal and professional rehabilitation that found him trying his hand at pop and country before being welcome back to gospel, first on the strength of his award winning work as a producer and eventually as a performer again. Needless to say, returning to the Gaither fold is a deeply emotional moment for him, and he shows it in words, and in the feeling he summons on the lush testimony of "I Bowed On My Knees," so profoundly moving it brings the assembled guests to their feet when English, Mark Lowry, Guy Penrod and David Phelps meld their voices in a burst of house wrecking harmony—but he matches the power of his singing with his emotional, tearful memories of leaving the Vocal Band to go solo and feeling like this event has brought him back to a place where he's found something important in his life. Elvis Presley fans might take note of a terrific version of one of the King's finest gospel performances, Gaither's "He Touched Me," performed with surging force at the Reunion by Buddy Mullins, Marshall Hall, David Phelps and Lee Young. Volume Two is the continuation of the reunion, with the same pattern of interviews and performances, the former always thoughtful and gracious, the latter reflecting the variety of styles the GVB has advanced since forming in 1981 with Gaither joined by Gary McSpadden, Lee Young and Steve Green. Volume Two's high points include an emotional performance of the R&B-tinged "Dream On" with Larnelle Harris's plaintive reading; a traditional country gospel rendition of Rusty Goodman's touching "Home," with a dramatic lead vocal by Michael English and soothing, tight quartet harmonies by the quartet of English, Gaither, Lowry and Wes Hampton; and, arguably best of all, Steve Green's personal investment in and moving testimony of his own faith and fears of falling short of virtue as a prelude to his soaring declaration of Jon Mohr's power ballad-styled prayer in song, "Find Us Faithful." The high-def video has appealing depth and bold color, the camera is active and attuned to the storyline, moving in for close-ups at emotional moments, drawing back to show the impact of an anecdote or a performance as registered on the audience's faces. Gaither's homespun style as an interviewer and host, the overflow of pure exultation in so many of the performances, the conviction on display in all of them, and the stirring personal testimonies of artists such as Michael English make the four hours of the Gaither Vocal Band Reunion speed by in a flash. For fans of southern gospel, these videos are a must for the archives. —David McGee

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