Monday, July 20, 2009

Concert Review: Jars of Clay with Seabird @ the underground

A friend and I caught the Jars of Clay/Seabird show at the underground on Saturday, July 18. Let's start with the positives. I loved the venue. The layout was similar to Zeke's in Ames - a middle sized, dimly lit room with a balcony, suspended walkway, snack bar, etc. I'm guessing they could fit about 300 people in there, though I'd say only about 150 people showed up. We were able to get as close to the stage as we liked. No squinting from the upper deck here. The staffers were polite and helpful, and the crowd was almost too subdued. More on that later.


I got there a little late so I only caught the second half of Seabird's set. I'd never heard of this Cincinnati based band beforehand but was favorably impressed. Lead singer and keyboardist Aaron Morgan's vocals reminded me of Gavin DeGraw, though the overall vibe was some kind of indie fusion of Keane and Coldplay. The songs I heard were tight and at least aspired to emotional potency. Like many young artists, Morgan made the mistake of trying to sing out of his range. Best to remember that your voice will tire as the show progresses. There was way more to feel good about than to criticize, however. I'm excited to hear the rest of their latest, Til We See the Shore.

After the changeover, Jars of Clay took the stage. Before I get into the details of their performance, I want to recognize the historical significance of this band. Christian rock began in the 80s as an imitative alternative to secular music. I recall seeing two representative bands from that era, Petra and White Heart, at the Iowa State Fair as a lad. It was a classic big hair and big guitar glam-fest. Most of the Christian bands from this time period struggled to transcend their influences. To me, Petra is the Christian Van Halen. I didn't leave the show empty handed, though. Near the end of their set, White Heart frontman Rick Florian announced they were going to play a song by some band named U2. An immaculate cover of Pride in the Name of Love is my first memory of the famous Dublin quartet. It's the only tune I remember from the whole night. Rick, where ever you are, thank you.

The popularity of more spiritually oriented bands like U2 and the alternative rock movement of the early 90s presented a huge opportunity for Christian music. While the 80s had been all about style, the 90s were all about substance. I remember listening to Jars of Clay's Flood on secular radio on my way to school circa 1995. Flood was the crossover hit that proved Christian music could communicate outside the church subculture.

Rock gradually evolved from its origins in the 60s counterculture to occupy a less threatening position as American pop music. A mixture of gospel and the blues, rock and roll was uniquely suited to express both transcendence and suffering. And the church was taking notice. Worship leaders all across the country began to use rock and roll in church. The Christian Contemporary Music movement brought rock into the church mainstream. As the audience became less suspicious of the medium, they gave Christian artists more freedom to express themselves. Christian music became less slavish and much fresher, lighter, and more original. The combination of freedom and passion gave birth to a golden age. Artists like Lincoln Brewster, Phil Keaggy, and David Crowder can sit proudly next to any musician in the rock pantheon. And unlike many in our postmodern culture, Christians still have a Reason to sing.

Jars of Clay

Sadly, Jars' performance hardly befit a band of such historical eminence. The first few songs from their new album The Long Fall Back to Earth fell flat indeed. Dan Haseltine's attempts to excite the crowd with the usual posturing and gesturing were forced. Instead of engaging the audience, the band seemed lost in their own little world. The exception was a charming little tune called Closer. Haseltine described Long Fall as an album about the work it takes to maintain a relationship. "If you want my love, well you’ve got to get close to me," he croons during the chorus. Closer describes how two people's lives can become completely inseparable:

I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough
I want your kite strings tangled in my trees all wrapped up
I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough
I’ll be the comets that are fallin from the sky you light up

Good poetry like this couldn't quite save the day, however. Neither could an electric arrangement of Flood. I did have fun singing along to a few Jars standards, and taking in a live show is never a waste of time.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Film Review: The Visitor (2007)

Professor Walter Vale is a ghost. The death of his pianist wife leaves him adrift on an ocean of silence, utterly and achingly alone. While attending an economics conference, Walter is shocked to discover two immigrants living in his New York City apartment. Instead of calling the police or insisting that the couple leave immediately, this unassuming economics professor does something strange and wonderful. He surprises Tarek, from Syria, and Zainab, from Senegal, by suggesting that they stay. Walter is alone no longer.

Tarek and Walter begin a friendship centered on their mutual appreciation of music. Tarek teaches the reluctant older man to play the djembe. The rhythms of the African drum become a bridge between two unimaginably different men.

When Tarek is thrown into a detention facility for being in New York illegally, Walter hires a lawyer to try to get him released. Tarek's mother Mouna arrives on Walter's doorstep looking for her son. Again, Walter cannot turn her away. The second half of the film focuses on Walter and Mouna's budding relationship.

I found this entire film delightful. Director Thomas McCarthy misses no opportunity to remind us that we all partake of a common humanity. His lens renders the lives of immigrants dignified.

As with most great art, The Visitor defies neat categorization. Ultimately, however, it is a story about redemption. Walter has no reason to believe that Tarek and Zainab have anything that he wants. The immigrants have no reason to expect anything from Walter. But his compassion inadvertently leads him to find exactly what he needs.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Garden as Metaphor

In the garden of my mind
Where all the world grows...

When was the last time you wandered through a garden? Was the day misty and cool, the light falling softly on the hazy earth? Or were you dazzled by the brilliance of Day? If you find yourself in a garden, be prepared to meet Stillness and Green. They are long time residents. Diversity and Beauty would also like to be introduced. An almost palpable Quiet will walk beside you unnoticed. And before too long, you will find yourself at Peace.