Quincessentials: Phil Keaggy/Randy Stonehill & Mat Kearney

Quincessentials: Phil Keaggy/Randy Stonehill & Mat Kearney

August 26, 2009
Written by Brian Newcomb

Phil Keaggy/Randy Stonehill
Mystery Highway
Odd Body Music

There are two kinds of people: Folks who think there are two kinds of people, and folks like me who don't.

But on this occasion, I'm willing to bet there are two kinds of people reading this. Folk who've been reading my stuff in and about the contemporary Christian music (CCM) world for these last, nearly 30, years, many of which will hear the names Keaggy & Stonehill and know exactly who these great talented CCM veterans are.

And, the rest of you, probably UCC, probably distrustful of much of CCM and for good reason (see below), who haven't a clue who or what these guys are into. Did you know anything about the Eels or the Bottle Rockets? I was right about them, right? So, please hang in here.

With rare exceptions (my editor Gregg Brekke played guitar and was backup screamer for a Christian metal band one summer long ago, but nobody's supposed to know that, so it's our little secret), folk in a position like mine — a longtime UCC pastor, part of the mainstream religious left for lack of a better explanation — tend to be uninformed about contemporary Christian music. We're probably a bit suspicious and nervous when the youth lay leader says "hey, I wanna take the kids to see these Christian rock bands, Relient K and Switchfoot. They're really cool and they believe in Jesus, wanna come?"

Maybe somebody dragged you to a Petra show back in the day and some preacher got up and ruined all those Journey and KISS covers you thought you recognized with a "hell-fire" sermon that turned you off, turned your stomach. Or someone asked to sing "Awesome God" in worship, "cause it's such a beautiful praise chorus," and then you listened to the verses about God kicking humankind out of the Garden and destroying Sodom and thought, where's the beauty in all of that?

Well, there's plenty of reasons to distrust contemporary Christian music whether it be unimaginative, less then special music, or theology that reeks of the religious right's exclusivity and literalism – a major theme in my music journalism career has been lifting up the rare diamonds amid the sea of dreck, looking for signs of light and life where they could be found.

No doubt, we'll get to a lot of that here at Quincessentials as time passes, and I get to the new Derek Webb and David Bazan discs in a week or two.

But in the meantime, assuming you've even read this far, let may say this. Just as not all music made by Christians is as good as they claim over at CCM.com (and I know of what I speak, having written for those folk for over two decades), a lot of it, okay some of it, is more relevant, thoughtful, graceful and musically satisfying than you think.

I'm here, laying my life down on your behalf, to help you find something worth listening to, and sharing with your congregations and friends. Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill are two that fit very admirably in that category.

Randy Stonehill is one of the earliest veterans of the Christian rock world. If you've read the review of the Larry Norman movie, or perhaps checked out the film "Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman," you'll recognize that Stonehill was a protégée of Norman, often called the "father of Christian rock music," and together they were pioneers of CCM.

While Stonehill's first fully professional studio album wasn't released until 1976, his early mostly live '71 release "Born Twice" established his early credibility on the West Coast.

Ohioan Phil Keaggy became a Christian after establishing himself as a guitarist with world-class potential in the power trio Glass Harp, which came up to fill the void created when Joe Walsh's James Gang went national.

After three releases with Glass Harp, some carrying Keaggy's new religious expressions, Keaggy released his solo debut, "What A Day," in 1974. From the fact that Keaggy played every instrument right on through to the sound, there were lots of comparisons to Paul McCartney, something that has followed him these last 35 years.

Keaggy and Stonehill had separate impressive careers, but an early happenstance laid the groundwork for their current working relationship. Keaggy's second solo album and single was "Love Broke Thru," a song written by Stonehill, Keith Green and T. Fishkind.

In 1988, some smart Christian record exec brought them together to write and record "Sunday's Child" a set of songs that played out the Beatles influences in their music, Stonehill doing his best John Lennon to match Keaggy's McCartney. It was a great album, but that was over twenty years ago.

Here, on "Mystery Highway," they rekindle the magic of that sound and that time. The Beatle-esque flavor still dominates, but the mature elder statesmen that they are this time around they sound more self-assured, more confident, more willing to stretch out, do something different, like the fun ad libbed riff on "Rockman."

They cover their own song "Sunday's Child," recovering it with new energy for this new century and probably rescuing from the past. But it's great new songs like "Rockin' in a Hard Place" and "Picture Postcard Perfect Day" that create the excitement. These guys aren't living in the past, reliving past glory days, they are old men rocking out in the real world, and it works.

And, all their chops are up to form, Stonehill and Keaggy are in great voice, Keaggy's guitar sound is rich, bold, impeccable throughout, the production rocks, crisp, punchy, cool without succumbing to gimmick.

Real good songs like the title track, "Who's Your Driver?", the hopeful "We Will Meet Again," and even the closing "Dreamspeak," with Keaggy's playing matching his lyric that "deep cries unto deep," give the concept breadth and depth, something beyond the fun interaction of these two iconic presences. And, they cover the song of another Christian music pioneer, the late Mark Heard's "Love Is Not the Only Thing." It's lovely to see his memory and music kept alive (RIP, MH).

Stonehill's had moments when his art has been swallowed in his silliness, a sense of humor that can at times defy explanation. Keaggy can, well, seem too serious, nearly dour ... but in a sweet way. Together they bring out the best in each other. Stonehill plays Mick Jagger and invites Keaggy to bring his inner Keith Richards out for a walk around the park, together they write great melodic rock that recalls their classic influences, Beatles of course, but also Clapton, Kinks, classic rockers who deliver hooky rock songs and then play their hearts out all over them.

Doing all of this so well on "Mystery Highway," we are reminded that lively, fun music can be great art. Age is a state of mind, and when it's this good, this open minded, this open to God's healing spirit, so are categories.

Mat Kearney
City of Black & White

This follow-up record from the guy who's name will elude you, but whose music and voice you've likely heard in the closing montage at the end of an episode of Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs, came out early this summer.

I choose to write about it now, because its one I keep putting back into rotation for listening at work and in the car, and because so little pop music strikes me lately, that when something connects, I feel it must be worth sharing. On the other hand, he wears one of those cutesy hats you see on Jason Mraz... so I almost left him off my list.

When I interviewed Kearney for CCM Magazine's cover in Indianapolis two summers ago, I learned that he could have signed with a half a dozen different Christian music labels, but didn't because he wanted to make pop music that spoke about life and spirituality in a world that was bigger. No doubt it was was a larger market than the limited CCM box.

So he avoided a smaller, religious, following for a chance at the big time and was validated when his songs, "Undeniable," "Where We Gonna Go From Here?" and "Breathe In, Breathe Out" won TV soundtrack placement and took the full disc, "Nothing Left to Lose," up the sales charts.

Kearney's moody, mid-tempo pop, with his spoken white boy raps suggesting poetic pretensions as well as sincerity, was a winner with the Grey's Anatomy, chick-lit set. And although he sings more here, well, sorta speak/sings but raps less, he's kind of claiming that new century spot once occupied by the likes of Don Henley and Bruce Hornsby when he was in "The Way It Is" mode.

What's missing for me is Hornsby's stunning jazz key chops and Henley's standby Eagles' lite guitar solo spot — I do like a little muscular musical "something" to take the pop thing to the next level... But other than that, Kearney has hit a comfortable chord, one that connects.

Of course, given the Christian music leanings, there's a bit of that is this song about a girlfriend of about God thing going on in "All I Have." That is until he sings, "Lord... would you pick us up form a fall/rip a little corner off the darkness/just a crack of light in the middle of it all," and it's clear that this is a pop song, likely to end up out there in the pop culture world, about a commitment to serve God, a prayer for God to intervene. Nice.

"Fire & Rain" has a reference to the prodigal, "Closer to Love" suggests "I guess we're all just a phone call from our knees," and so it goes...

Kearney mixing the spiritual and the mundane, the common with the call to communion, to community. Just like real life, not like Christian music's pretend vacuum world, but in a space similar to that occupied by U2, with music I find a tad bit less compelling and interesting, but a similar space nonetheless. Really nice.

The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others.

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