Last Friday night I travelled with my family and two friends to Atlanta to attend Greg Howlett’s concert/recording session at the Gwinnett Performing Arts Center. It’s not surprising to meet people who have never heard of Greg, but it is surprising for people not to appreciate his music after they’ve heard it. For someone to doubt his prowess after watching a concert like I saw would be inconceivable. Greg and his team of around 200 put together a live experience matched only in the highest circles of music performers. The audio-visual event was fantastic without being overkill. Of course, anything live is not without flaw, and surprising your audience can often backfire. First I’ll talk about the technical aspects of the concert: video, lighting, and audio. The second half will include opinions on the quality and originality of the music. In closing, I’ll share some personal thoughts on the experience as a whole.
Since I wasn’t able to see any of the footage shot from the five or six cameras that were recording, I can’t yet opine on the quality of the image. I can say that there was obviously a quality production team running the operation. There was a large jib (crane) on the side of one balcony, a steadicam operator down front, two cameras in the rear, and one or two cameras roving the platform for close-ups. There was a production truck with a producer and staff outside of the venue that called the shots to the production crew inside via headsets. I assume it was all live-switched among the camera angles with an ISO recording of each camera for later editing if required. With the variety of shots available, I’m confident the final edited program will look great.
The Gwinnett PAC is not a particularly large venue, seating about 700, but the lighting used that evening looked like something transplanted from a Broadway theatre three times its size. The sheer quantity of lights in that room was staggering. Many were added especially for Greg’s performance, but there were a lot of watts flowing through that building Friday night. The colorations and movement of lights were choreographed dramatically and effectively to the music. No two songs looked exactly the same, but the use of strobes and other ostentatious lights was conspicuously absent. The resulting effect was that of support for the message conveyed instead of, “Oooh, look at all those pretty lights.”
Sadly, the sound is the first area to gripe about. The house sound and recorded sound were mixed separately. The audience in the auditorium that night was hearing a mixture of live sound from the performers and pre-recorded studio music. Unfortunately, most of the songs were much too hot (loud) to be easily intelligible. There were some songs in which the vocals of the choir were almost completely drowned out. Instrumental numbers seemed like a wall of sound rather than a nice mix of instruments. The kick-bass stood out as especially overpowering. I don’t know who was responsible for the house sound level, but someone dropped the ball in my opinion. The music would have had a better effect had the overall volume been brought down in favor of alternately highlighting specific instrument groups where appropriate. Keep in mind, however, that the final recording will have an ideal mix of pre-recorded and live-recorded music, so this complaint should not affect the sound you can expect to hear on the CD/DVD released in the fall.
The opening song was “God of Heaven” by Heather Sorenson. If you read my review of this song in the past, you’ll know it is one of my favorites in the choral music genre. When I found out that Greg would be arranging and performing this song, I really hoped that his interpretation would not disappoint. When you like a song so much, it’s hard not to be let down when others try to put a new spin on it. I can say with confidence that Greg’s version would not disappoint the biggest fan or critic of that song. The structure of his arrangement at almost seven minutes long follows the same structure as Heather’s original arrangement. It starts quietly mysterious, building to a climax about ¾ of the way through the song. There’s an abrupt decrescendo and bridge followed by an angelic final verse. I’ve never been much of a fan of drums with sacred music, but I thought the drummer Justin Chesarek did an excellent job of supporting the mood of the song.
Greg introduced a new song entitled “This God Alone.” A young lady named Janice Brown wrote the lyrics, while the music was original to Greg. It’s a lively 6/8 meter song that seems perfect for choirs. Greg mentioned on his blog that they will be considering having it published as sheet music for choirs. Before performing this song, Greg introduced Nathan Prisk who sings bass for the Daybreak Quartet. Nathan helped the audience warm up to sing “This God Alone” by leading us in a few choruses of “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” During the performance, he stood to the side of the stage and directed us on when to come in for each chorus. This could have had a really cool effect with 600+ voices singing together, but it didn’t seem to work that well to me. The song was entirely new to almost everyone there, and the tempo was very fast. I’m not a great singer, but I have enough experience to hold my own pretty well when sight reading music. Even so, I had trouble keeping up with the tempo and a few tricky spots of rhythm. More time for the audience to familiarize themselves with the song would have been helpful.
Greg did an arrangement of “Come, Ye Sinners” with the three band members. This is one of my favorite hymns, especially because I’m a sucker for ancient tunes in minor keys. Unfortunately, much of the melody and message was lost on me due to the arrangement and avant garde treatment that it was given.
Two other songs that I was looking forward to were “I Run to Christ” and “No More Night.” “I Run to Christ” is a new song from the Churchworks Media team of Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger. “No More Night” received an appropriately huge treatment with a full choir, orchestra, piano, and band. This song received an impromptu standing ovation and was quickly followed up with a reprise of the chorus.
Most of the instrumentalists were talented Kennesaw State University students. Each of the three band members had masters degrees in their given discipline, and they were exceptionally talented.
Greg performed his music masterfully, and if he made a mistake, those that wrote the music will be the only ones to know it. His performance sounded perfect to me. I did notice that he seemed to be extremely heavy handed on the keyboard. I started to feel sorry for the Schimmel piano after the first few songs. Near the end, he was raking his knuckles up and down the keys like a mad man. I figured one of them had to break, the piano or him. Apparently, it was him, because he posted this weekend that his fingers were bruised and bleeding. Interestingly enough, the “dark” Schimmel really never sounded like it was getting played exceptionally hard. Yamahas and Steinways that are brighter tend to sound more strained when given a pounding like that, but the Schimmel Greg used just wouldn’t budge. It sounded very consistent all night. I would have preferred a brighter piano to help it stand out above the rest of the music. On the other hand, a brighter sound would not have sounded quite the same with the style of Greg’s music.
The distinction of Greg’s music is a laid back, lush, smooth-jazz feel. Some people might think of it as “lounge music” style. He definitely has some southern gospel and black gospel influence, but that influence took front stage during this concert. When he mentioned that he’d have a band with him on stage, I expected a light jazz band: drums, saxophone, upright bass. What we got was drums, fiddle/violin, and electric bass/upright bass. That didn’t worry me at first, but then they played versions of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship.” It’s hard to describe the style they played in, but it was mostly a mixture of gospel, country/western swing, and jazz. I was disappointed and felt somewhat duped, because this is not what I’ve come to expect from Greg’s music. I was also embarrassed since my two guests were clearly not comfortable with this style of music. Those numbers definitely had the feel of music from “Prairie Home Companion,” not a sacred music concert. It stood out even more against the backdrop of traditionally styled songs like “I Run to Christ.”
The things that I took issue with at Greg’s concert are smaller than the things that I thought were world-class. Things could have been better; they always can. With Greg’s tenacious and meticulous personality, I’m sure that if given the opportunity, he will do things better when the time comes. The fact that around 600 people paid money and came just to hear Greg and his team play is a testament to the appeal of his music. For a guy that doesn’t do music as his full-time job, that’s an accomplishment not to be taken lightly. The edited DVD and CD is supposed to become available for purchase around Thanksgiving, and I’m sure that the majority of the gripes that I wrote about will be relegated to the memories of those in attendance. Until then I’ll be going through those memories like an old photo album trying to conjure up the unique experience of getting to hear such great music live.
I recorded a podcast on Monday night with Greg and talked about how he felt things went. I also got some behind-the-scenes information on all the efforts leading up to this concert. You can download the podcast here.
To view the full-size images that are in this review and to see more of the photos that I took at Greg’s concert, you can view my Google Plus album here.