Albums That Influenced Me – Part III

First time experiences are always things to cherish and hold onto. First time driving a car. First time spending the night at a friend’s house. First time going on vacation without your parents. First kiss. And on and on and on.

Although I don’t remember exactly the first time that I heard Eric Clapton, the combination of hearing him with the stage of life that I was at and a good friend and mentor together all added up to a love of Mr. Slowhand and his music to this day. It was probably “Wonderful Tonight” that I heard all those years ago, which is funny considering how that song shows only one side of him.

When I was in middle school, a post-college young man came to my church. He was the brother of my youth pastor and was versed in secular music like no one else I had known in my short handful of years. Having been raised in the 60s and 70s, he was a fan of what I knew then as Classic Rock. The perfect combination came together as I looked up to this guy, he played guitar, and he didn’t ignore me like my older brother generally did.

As we spent time together, his love of guitar began to rub off on me. My birthday came around and I got my first guitar. Like Bryan Adams sang, “Got my first real six string….played it ‘til my fingers bled.” I looked to my friend to lead and guide me in all things guitar since I had no one around who could lead me that way. At least, no one who my parents actually trusted.

These were the days before CDs. Vinyl records were still big and it wasn’t uncommon for people to record their albums onto tapes so that they could bring them with and listen to them wherever they went. They were the days when albums meant something, when there was intentionality in how songs were put together. Listening to albums in their entirety was common, or at least one side of the albums.

At my request, my friend recorded all of his Clapton albums for me. As I talk to him today, we differ in our remembrance as he tells me that I guilted him into making those recordings for me. The irony of it all these years later is that I now have a lot of those albums on vinyl and he doesn’t.

I immersed myself in Clapton. It was like a whole new world for me. Just to be able to recognize music while I was out in public was a revelation for me. No longer was I simply resigned to recognizing the Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, and Andy Williams. My palette had expanded, and even if it was only slightly, it made a huge difference for my well-being.

I jumped in headfirst and wore out these tapes once my friend made them for me. As I learned guitar, I learned Clapton songs as well. Badge. Wonderful Tonight. Sunshine of Your Love. Everything that he released from that point on, I was watching and waiting for.

Whether it was the first album that my friend made a top of or not, Clapton’s album “Backless” just hit me. From the opening drum hits of “Walk Out in the Rain” to “Tell Me That You Love Me,” this was new ground to me and I drank it in like a thirsty hiker finally reaching his checkpoint.

In an effort to shield me from the worldliness of this “heathen” music, my friend refused to record some of the songs that were deemed inappropriate like “I’ll Make Love To You Anytime” and “Cocaine.” And prohibition just adds to the mystique, so you can be that the moment that I actually was allowed to get the albums on CD years later, I would wear those songs out. Guiding by prohibition is not always the most effective way to teach.

Nowadays, when I listen to “Backless,” I am so used to the song order that when one song ends, I wait in anticipation for the next one to start right behind it. It makes for a mildly entertaining scenario in my head whenever I’m listening to songs on shuffle.

My one regret when it comes to Clapton is that I was never able to see him in concert. The pinnacle of the concert experience would have been seeing him with his old friend Steve Winwood. Sadly, when the duo went through Madison Square Garden, I was long gone from New England and the ability to take the train to NYC at a moment’s notice.

After his “Unplugged” album, I tapered off a little from my listening as my musical tastes continued to broaden and take me to other places. A few years back, I read his autobiography which inspired me to once again delve back into the vast catalogue of EC. While there were a couple albums that fell flat, I think he finally reached that age where he realized he had such a resume behind him that he could just make the kind of music that HE wanted to make rather than worrying about what anyone else was thinking.

And of course, when I finally got my first electric guitar, the one that I had saved for years to buy, it was a Fender Stratocaster. I observed early on that if you were a Clapton fan, that was your axe of choice. If you were mostly a Jimmy Paige guy, you preferred Les Pauls.

Albums That Influenced Me – Part II

In the years after college, I was trying to find my place still. I had graduated with an engineering degree and was working in the field, but I probably had a major case of FOMO. I wanted to seize every possible opportunity that came across my path.

Having played guitar since I was about fourteen, I decided to try my hand at the coffeehouse scene. I could be brooding when I needed to be and when I began to focus on music, it seemed like the most melancholic part of my personality came out.

I had a key to my dad’s church and would go there late at night to play, practice, and write. It’s amazing how peaceful a church sanctuary is when no one else is around. That place literally became my sanctuary as I found myself coming of age in my 20s and dealing with all the bumps and turns of life. I guess, if I’m honest, the biggest bumps and turns were relational ones at the time, primarily with the opposite sex.

I had become close with a girl whose brother was a rising musician. He was just starting to get some exposure in the professional scene. During that time, he got connected with Vanessa Williams and he worked on her Christmas album. My friend and I even got to go to New York City for the taping of her Christmas show as my friend’s brother was the musical director for the show.

I grew to appreciate my friend’s brother and his music and it coincided with my efforts to write more music. One day, while talking with my friend, I asked her whether or not she could arrange a meeting with her brother. I wanted to learn from someone who had experience. So, he carved out time in his busy schedule and one weekend afternoon, I went over to his house. 

I had been playing around with open tuning on my guitar although everything I did was mostly by ear rather than because I actually knew what I was doing. While I knew my way around a piano keyboard, the guitar was still foreign to me (kind of still is to this day). My friend’s brother wanted to hear some of the songs that I had written.

I remember playing a Christmas song that I had written that was from the shepherd’s perspective of the birth of Jesus. At the time, my friend’s brother would do an annual Christmas concert as the two albums that he had done at the time were really focused on Christmas music. He would eventually garner the moniker “Mr. Christmas” as his annual concert and his fame grew.

It was a little nerve wracking playing my pedestrian songs for this guy. Pretty sure that he even used that word “pedestrian” when he described my songs. He saw my Christmas song as an homage to him, which was probably more true than I wanted to admit at the time. He also did his best to steer me in the right direction, throwing out a few musical suggestions to me.

Having heard his suggestions, I quickly immersed myself in them. One name was suggested for his lyrical abilities. The other two names were suggested for their chord stylings and alternate tunings. The last two were women: Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. I hadn’t heart Colvin before but Mitchell was familiar only in name to me. The first name he gave me, the one known for his lyrical abilities, was Bob Dylan. The album he suggested was “Blood on the Tracks.”

These three names took me down various rabbit holes, but none as much as the rabbit hole of Bob Dylan. Up to that point, he had been a joke because of his less than stellar voice. I had never really listened to him, I mean really listened. I had heard only a gravelly and whiney voice without uncovering the magic behind it.

That would be the beginning of my love and appreciation for Bob Dylan. “Blood on the Tracks” remains one of my favorite albums of Dylan’s. The stories he would weave with simple melodies and chord structures seemed almost too easy. He seemed to do it effortlessly, playing, singing, blowing on the harmonica.

As the years went by, my collection of his music expanded. I had the chance to see him with Paul Simon in Connecticut. I named my son after him. I saw him the night before my father died (which is a whole other story that I may or may not have already written about somewhere). I even got to take that saw son to see him this year.

So I guess that Bob Dylan has become a part of me. My discovery of him was really after most of his major musical stages, but unearthing all of the gems along the way after the fact was just as rewarding and satisfying for me.

Albums That Influenced Me – Part I

If you spend any time on social media, you may have seen those posts where people are urged to share the music albums that influenced them for 10 days straight. They are technically supposed to invite others along on the journey every day and limit their posts to just the album cover with no explanation whatsoever.

Music is such a deep and influential part of who I am that it’s hard for me not to share more than just an album cover. If I’m sharing the albums out, chances are that the impact they had goes so much deeper than just hearing a cool song on the radio. In fact, as I’ve traced it back, some of the most influential albums for me were released in the late 80s, a time when my musical horizons were being broadened beyond the limitations that my parents had put on me in my younger years.

A friend commented on my influential album post on day 7, wondering what the story was behind some of the albums I had shared for the previous 6 days, so I decided that I would share a little about why these albums were so influential to me. It doesn’t mean that they were the greatest albums ever, the best music, or the most popular, it just means that they struck me somewhere deep inside. So without further ado, the first of a lot of posts, sharing why these particular albums meant so much to me. 

The summer between middle school and high school, I spent on staff at a family camp that I had grown up going to in upstate New York in the Adirondacks. I worked far too many hours for far too little money, but it was one of the greatest summers of my life. I still stay in contact with some of the people that I met that summer and the memories that I made will last me my entire lifetime.

I had grown up on Contemporary Christian Music, the Carpenters, and Andy Williams. My parents had forbidden me from listening to secular music, so middle school was even more miserable of an experience for me than it might normally be.

Fortunately for me, a friend and mentor who had recently begun coming to my dad’s church got me into Eric Clapton that year or the year before. I had slowly been immersing myself into Clapton’s early stuff from the 70s, so I wasn’t a complete noob when it came to that vast catalog of rock and roll music.

With an older brother who was venturing through his own prodigal ways as the son of a pastor, I was exposed to music that was outside the bounds of what my mom and dad permitted. That’s when “Owner of a Lonely Heart” came along. It was a few years old by the time it hit my ears, but I was instantly drawn in. This music was fascinating to me. The musicianship. The lyrics. The song structure. It was a whole new world for me.

Being away from my parents for the summer. I was trying my best to discover just who I was. Music played a part in that as I was introduced to bands like New Order, Aerosmith, and Guns n Roses. I couldn’t get enough and when they finally banned the radio in the dishroom where I worked, it was too late. We had spent so much time listening to these songs, imbibing this music, that it was imprinted on our brains and we just sang along by heart all the songs we had been listening to up to that point.

In the heyday of the shopping mall, I went along on one trip with one of  my fellow inmates coworkers. On that trip, I visited one of the big box record stores in the mall and bought “90125.” Pretty sure I wore that album out that summer. I couldn’t get enough and it became a gateway drug to me. It was a ticket into the world of progressive rock as I went home from camp that summer to begin compiling the full catalog of Yes’ work. Little did I know how different that album would be from the rest of their work, but I fell in love with them nonetheless.

The rest is history, but that album will always evoke such vivid memories of that summer when my taste changed, my musical palate broadened, and I began to really discover just who I was outside of the influence of my parents.

When A Legend Dies

Rush In Concert At The Nokia TheatreLast week, one of the greatest drummers of all time passed away. While he didn’t make any huge humanitarian contributions to the world nor did he make any medical advancements, he made an impact on the lives of many socially awkward youth across the decades that he wrote and played music with his band.

As an aspiring musician in middle school, I was introduced to the music of Rush through my brother. As the younger brother, pretty much everything my older brother did for a time was cool to me. It was even cooler when I saw some of his friends donning the band’s T-shirts as they maneuvered their way through those awkward teenage years. All I knew is that this music didn’t fit neatly into a category. It wasn’t Top 40. It wasn’t metal. It resided within a realm that was outside of norms with lyrics that were far deeper than most of what was being played on the radio.

Having been indoctrinated to CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) as a kid, my first foray into “Secular” music felt much like other forays that I would eventually experience, dangerous and risky but so exciting. To begin to open myself up to music outside the concentrated bubble that I had found myself in for years was more than just a new experience.

As I continued deeper down the rabbit hole that was Rush and their music, I found more kindred spirits among their fans. Eventually, in college, I found my way to see them in concert. On the brink of my 21st birthday, I dissed my brother and my best friend to instead treat myself and my girlfriend at the time to a concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia.

I honestly don’t remember it as much as I would like to remember it, not because I had drank too much or taken some kind of mind-altering drugs, but just because that’s what ends up happening when I experience something so new and mysterious for the first time. There was so much to take in that I feel like I probably missed half of it because I was putting too much pressure on myself to drink in the moment.

Years later, Rush remained on my radar, churning out music, reinventing themselves, but their earlier music had made a significant mark on some of the most memorable years of my life. Funny, the music that has been indelibly tattooed on my brain isn’t the greatest of their catalog but rather hit me at a significant emotional and spiritual moment in my life. It was the music and the moment colliding at that time that left the mark and listening to that music today transports me to another time and place, a time that seems far less complicated than today.

It’s funny how someone that you don’t know personally can have such an impact. It’s not so much what they did but what they represented. The death of Neil Peart meant more than just the end of an era for a band, it meant the death of a part of my youth. It symbolized my mortality, standing there as a poignant reminder that, in the words of Peart himself, “We are only immortal for a limited time.” While that doesn’t speak to my faith and belief regarding what lurks beyond death, it seemed a true statement for the moment in which I found myself last week.

Neil Peart and Rush represented youth to me, but so much more. Dreams. Aspirations. Change. Discoveries. These things and so much more. Within those notes and within those lyrics a new world was found. So losing a piece of that felt as if I was losing a piece of myself.

Days later, having immersed myself once again in their music, having watched countless videos of the band and documentaries about them, it’s as if I’m still grieving a family member. Again, that’s weird considering that statement comes from someone who has experienced a significant amount of loss. Just like pictures of deceased family members can transport you to the place and time the picture was taken, so music can do the same. As I close my eyes and let the sonic movements wash over me, I am transported to the first time I hear these notes, where I was, what I was doing, who I was at that moment.

Eventually, the initial shock of loss is normalized, the freshness wears off. While the impact remains, life moves on. We maneuver through the waves to find ourselves once again sailing through the waters of life.

And so, I continue on, hearing songs as if for the first time. I smile as I think about who I’ve become. Once upon a time, decades ago, these same notes hit me differently. An era has ended but there will always be that indelible mark, an almost everlasting reminder of what was. We’ll always have the music.


Behold the Christmas Season

1217191847_hdrYears ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, we visited friends down in Charlotte. Because my wife was taking classes there, we got to see these friends a lot.

One weekend, while my wife was in class, my friend and I were driving around and he was singing to what was playing in the car. When I inquired what it was, I hardly knew what would be waiting for me on the other side of it.

Behold the Lamb of God.

It was an album by a Christian artist named Andrew Peterson. I had heard of Peterson before through another friend, but my experience with Christian music was love or hate. I had grown jaded to the lack of artistic expression of many Christian artists who instead seemed to be churning out frivolous mediocrity rather than quality music representing the creativity of the One who had created them.

I don’t remember exactly how it went the first time I listened through the album. Nowadays, the art of listening to albums from start to finish has been lost. Although there has been a resurgence of artists performing albums in their entirety on concert tours, in this age of downloadable music and streaming services, we seem to be eternally on shuffle.

Somewhere between hearing those first notes in that car driving around Charlotte and a few years later, the album had become a staple in my annual Christmas music listening. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to constantly listen and it was an album that I wanted to last longer (the best kind, in my opinion).

In 2010, just a few years after we had moved to the Richmond area, we heard that Peterson would be coming to perform this album in its entirety. So, we eagerly bought our tickets and waited with anticipation. Little did I know what that would begin, an annual tradition that would be passed on to countless friends to be shared together.

Last night marked the sixth or seventh time of seeing this concert and it has never grown stale to me. Peterson has re-recorded the album, which is probably a blog post in itself, and continues to perform it as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the album. He assembles an array of singer-songwriters from the Nashville area and embarks on a journey every year to perform the album at a concert where the first half is marked by an “in the round” performance by the many artists he has with him and the second half is marked by the performance of the album.

1217192153_hdrIt really needs to be experienced in person to fully describe it. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend it, but make sure to familiarize yourself with the music first. With every additional listening, the album speaks to me more deeply. The brilliance of the writing. The creativity. The cleverness. The musicality. It all comes together to profoundly express the overarching message of the gospel through music and song.

Rarely do I ever experience moments like I experience at a Behold the Lamb of God concert. If I am not moved to tears by the end of the performance, then I’m probably not paying attention. To be reminded of God’s plan through Jesus Christ in such a beautiful and artistic way is truly moving.

So there I stood last night, with my family sitting next to me, sitting ten feet from the stage as those first notes played. And as those notes washed over me and the song cycle was played through, I again was moved to tears until the final moments when Peterson read from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As the crowd joined with the performers to sing the Doxology, the performers walked off the stage one by one, leaving just the light shining as the focus moved away from those who had so elegantly weaved this musical story for us and rested on the One for whom this season exists.

It’s not Rudolph. It’s not Santa. It’s not presents. It’s Jesus.

And in those moments, maybe my heart had grown three sizes like the Grinch. Behold, Christmas had come. And in the words of the Grinch, “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” And as the Grinch so profoundly thought, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Yes, Christmas means so much more, just like the Grinch realized. And I’m grateful for Andrew Peterson’s creativity for allowing me to remember that through song year after year, both in the comfort of my own home and in the splendor of a concert hall as well.



I Can Only Imagine – The Story Behind the Song

i can only imagineYou may be familiar with the hit song “I Can Only Imagine,” but you probably don’t know the history and background of the song and the story behind it. In “I Can Only Imagine” Bart Millard tells his story along with the story behind the song. Really, his story IS the story behind the song as Millard tells of the difficulties that he had growing up.

Throughout Millard’s recounting of his story, he describes some of the details of his early life and just how MercyMe became a band. Millard tells of his dual ankle injury while playing football that led to him quitting football and joining the choir. Eventually, he even starred as Curly in “Oklahoma.”

Much of Millard’s story focuses on his relationship with his father and the pain and abuse that he suffered at his father’s hand. After being hit by a car while directing traffic on a construction site led to a frontal lobe injury in his father’s brain, his father was never the same. His parents eventually divorced and Bart was left to live with his father. Even though Millard had an older brother, his father somehow seemed to have targeted him with the verbal and physical abuse that he doled out.

While in the 9th grade, Millard’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Knowing that it was terminal resulted in a dramatic change in his attitude and behavior. As his father faced his own mortality, he began to become more like the man that had existed before his accident. The abuse stopped and he began to really embrace the faith that he had only outwardly professed. This began a relationship and friendship between Bart and his father that had not existed before.

As his father’s health continued to deteriorate, their relationship grew deeper and stronger. When his father finally passed away, Millard talks of just how much God had done to restore the relationship that had been so frail and volatile.

Along the way, as Millard describes everything that happened between him and his father, he also tells of how he and his wife, who he’d known since they were young, kept coming back to each other. Eventually, they realized that there was a reason for that and they broke off the relationships that they had with other people to embrace what had been right in front of them all along.

Millard also tells of how he wrote “I Can Only Imagine” in a matter of minutes and how the music came to be at the end of a recording session which had all but been wrapped up. And in the miracle of this short span of time came about a song whose span and influence exceeded any other song before it.

The story of the song, the band, and this father-son relationship engrossed me. Having lost my own mother to pancreatic cancer, I was gripped from the very beginning. I could relate to Millard’s story in some ways and not in others, but his telling of the story was powerful and moving, drawing me in and keeping me reading page after page as the story unfolded.

“I Can Only Imagine” had always been such a powerful song to me, now having read the story behind the song and the songwriter, an already powerful song somehow became more so. Regardless of where you stand in terms of faith, it would be hard to read this account without being moved in some way. I urge you to pick up a copy of this book and dive into this story. You won’t be disappointed and it may just be an encouragement and a jolt to your faith to read of how God’s hand worked in the life of Bart Millard.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Listen to the Voice of Experience

u2 songs of experienceU2 has been doing what they do for a long time. Now they’ve finally released their follow-up to 2014’s Songs of Innocence with their 14th studio album Songs of Experience.

To be honest, I previewed it online and thought, “Meh!” In those brief excerpts, my first impression was not very favorable, there was nothing that grabbed me, nothing that stood out and said, “You need to listen to this!” But it’s U2! This is the band that has reinvented itself over and over again and I can’t think of a better name for this latest offering of theirs than Songs of Experience.

I remember the Fall of my freshman year of college when Achtung Baby came out. It was a little hard to take at first. It seemed like such a leap from The Joshua Tree that I wasn’t completely convinced. As much as I can be a change junkie, more often than not, I can be a creature of habit who loves the comfort of those warm and familiar things, like a band who knows how to ride a winning formula.

But I listened to it, then I listened to it again, and I kept listening to it over and over again. In fact, between Achtung Baby and Metallica’s black album, the sonic world of my first semester of college was filled. I could have been complete with just those two albums alone (but there was more).

Songs of Experience, like its predecessor was an album that needed repeat listening for me. I wasn’t fully convinced. As I listened, I was reminded of a scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus. The main character has just been told by his wife that she is pregnant. He is imagining all of his dreams drifting out the window with this sudden change in his life. His wife is upset at his less than enthusiastic response to this news. After a moment, he recounts the story of his introduction to John Coltrane after a recommendation from the guy at the record store. After his initial listening, he hated the album, but he listened to it again. Then he listened to it again and again and again until he couldn’t stop. In that moment he realized that he had fallen in love with the music of John Coltrane. He tells his wife that learning about her pregnancy will be like falling in love with John Coltrane all over again.

I kind of feel like this is a similar experience with U2. Listening to this album, I mean really listening to it and digesting it, picking it apart, spending time with it, wallowing in it, and hearing every word and every note. It is like falling in love with U2 all over again.

Bono was involved in a bicycle accident in 2014. After the accident, he embraced the challenge shared by poet, Brendan Kennelly, that if you really want to get to the heart of writing, you need to write as if you’re dead, writing retrospectively and introspectively. When you factor that in with the political landscape after the election of Donald Trump and the consideration that U2 recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of their album The Joshua Tree, Songs of Experience feels almost like an honest and reflective journal entry.  This album is an intimate and introspective exploration, asking more questions than offering answers. It doesn’t feel preachy, which I think Bono has been accused of in the past, it feels more like advice offered from the experience of mistakes and even regret.

Like the album cover from their last offering, this one offers a more intimate connection to the band. The cover of their last album, Songs of Innocence, showed the band’s drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr., hugging his shirtless son around the waist as if he was pleading with him not to leave his innocence behind. The cover of Songs of Experience depicts Bono’s son and Edge’s daughter (the latter donning the soldier helmet from their Best of 1980-1990 album). They stand there on the cover barefoot, hand in hand, dressed in black. It’s almost a paradox in a picture, the juxtaposition of youth and experience shrouded in black as if they are marking the death of something. Ready for the battle with life that is ahead of them.

The songs:

– “Love Is All We Have Left” – Bono sings, “Love is all we have left” to begin the album. It acts as a Call to Worship of sorts, inviting the listener into the liturgy of the next hour as U2 engages them with their thoughts on the state of things. The double negative that, “this is no time not to be alive.” Defiance against improbable odds, against death itself, love will carry us.

– “Lights of Home” – “I shouldn’t be here ‘cause I should be dead” referring to his bike accident that sidelined him; asking Jesus if he’s still his friend; launches right into this uptown, driving song. “I believe my best days are ahead.” It ends with Bono singing, “Free yourself to be yourself.” A reminder of where we can go to find hope, in the eyes of those we love, there we find the hope to push on. We move forward as we remember where we’ve been.

– “You’re the Best Thing About Me” – Bono makes reference to not only the band’s past album, “Boy,” but also himself as he explains more of the album’s title, saying that he is no longer who he used to be. Paying homage to those around him who have helped him become who he is today, those whom he loves and who have loved him. It’s a humble statement of acknowledgement that we become better by the people with whom we surround ourselves.

– “Get Out of Your Own Way” – Listening to the interview that Bono and The Edge did with Howard Stern, Bono talks about how he wrote this song for his daughter. It’s a love letter from a father who is offering words of wisdom as much to himself as he is to his daughter. He is offering to her from his own experience. The end transitions into “American Soul” with words that play on the Beatitudes of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the arrogant, the superstars, the filthy rich. Tongue firmly planted in cheek.

– “American Soul” – “Blessed are the bullies for one day they’ll have to stand up to themselves. Blessed are the liars for the truth can be awkward.” This song continues where the previous one left off with the alternative Beatitudes. Appropriate considering who this song is to: America. This could easily have come from All That You Can’t Leave Behind or How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Bono says this is a love letter to America who is. “still inventing and reinventing itself.” It feels like he is lamenting what America has become, painting a picture of what it was, at least in his mind. It’s a sound of drum and bass, a though that offers grace, a dream the whole world owns, it’s not a fantasy but a call to action. America is rock and roll. Having lived through the political turmoil in Ireland, this is not just facsimile, this is personal.

– “Summer of Love” – With the subtle nod to the 60s and even The Beach Boys, it seems that Bono is using slight of hand even as he sings, “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast, not the one that everyone knows.” It’s a nod to the Syrian refugees who were leaving everything behind and believing, hoping, that their best days were ahead of them, something Bono wishes for himself elsewhere on this album. “When all is lost we find out what remains.” It feels a little like a sequel to “Walk On” when he sang of all that you can’t leave behind and then proceeded to encourage his listener to leave it behind.

– “Red Flag Day” – This one feels a little like early U2, like Boy and October, especially on the chorus with the backing vocals repeating “Red flag day.” The Edge’s guitar has that post-punk feel to it just like their early stuff. It speaks of the turbulence and uncertainty of where we are going. Meeting where the waves are breaking, that place that feels at one moment calm and safe and the next it knocks you off your feet. But we’re doing it together, we aren’t alone, and we step into it doing our best to not let fear drive us, or our fear of fear hold us back. Inspiring and encouraging himself as much as he is the one to whom he is writing.

– “The Showman (Little More Better)” – What’s it like to get up in front of thousands upon thousands of people and bear your soul? A love letter to anyone who falls for a performer, Bono and U2 included. He admits that you probably shouldn’t listen to performers when they aren’t singing. After all, “I lie for a living, I love to let on but you make it true when you sing along.” It’s cheeky but it’s the audience that makes him look a little more better rather than just a pompous and egotistic artist.

– “The Little Things That Give You Away” – “It’s the little things that give you away, your big mouth in the way.” A confession of sorts, that sometimes I’m full of anger, grieving, far from believing and realizing that the end us not near, it’s here. But he never stays there, it’s only sometimes, it’s temporary, but it happens nonetheless.

– “Landlady” – A love letter to his wife, Ali, Bono writes of how he is better with her. In his effort to avoid too much sentimentality, his terminology may be lost. I’m not sure what wife would like to be called a landlady considering that most people’s experience with landladies (or lords) have probably not been the most favorable. I get what he’s saying though, she’s kept him stable and sheltered, especially in those moments of instability.

– “The Blackout” – As soon as the bass kicks in with the drums in the beginning of this song, it feels almost like you’ve stepped back in time. This one feels like it could have come straight from Pop or Zooropa. It’s a political statement about where we are. With lines like, “Democracy is flat on its back” and, “A big mouth says the people they don’t want to be free” Bono is calling his listeners to adjust their eyes to the darkness, to begin to see. In that adjustment, things become clearer. As Bono writes, “It’s in the dark is where we really see ourselves, where we find out who we are, when we’re left with nothing.”

– “Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way” – It’s safe to say that love seems to be not only one of the biggest topics on this album but in U2’s entire catalogue. Again sharing his own experience with the next generation, assuring them that, “If I could I would come too, but the path is made by you.” These songs are letters to sons and daughters, as Bono admits, telling them to lean into love. Love will propel you, even acting as a bulldozer, strongly moving everything and anything that gets in its way. Idealistic? Yes. Hopeful? Even more so!

– “13 “There Is A Light)” – This is where the regular version of the album ends and it acts as a Benediction, closing the album in a very similar way that it was opened. It completes the liturgy with the admission that it is a song for someone like him. There is hope, you might not see it, but it is there. Things may not turn out the way that you thought they would, but you don’t let the light go out just because you encounter the darkness. Keep pressing on with love because love makes the difference.

The Deluxe Edition:

– “Ordinary Love (Extraordinary Mix)” – This is from the film Mandela: Walk of Freedom. It was a film about a man who showed his ability to endure, to fight, to walk in the ordinary of the day. Mandela showed his ability to walk in this ordinary love, especially having been imprisoned for 27 years. Can you handle the day in and day out of love, the common ordinary occurrences that happen after the honeymoon? Bono asks the question of himself, of those he loves. Are we tough enough? As an extra track, this fits well.

– “Book of Your Heart” – The experience of marriage, moving beyond just the vows and the contract. “There is a cost to the pledges made in young love but in the end the cost is never high enough, is it?” Bono asks. In an age and era where commitment means little, where marriage seems to be as expendable as a commitment to brand loyalty, this offers hope that in the mundane of life, things can still be sustained even if it’s not easy.

– “Lights of Home (St. Peter’s String Version)” – The addition of strings.

– “You’re The Best Thing About Me (U2 VS KYGO)” – Nice remix.

Bono writes towards the end of the liner notes, “I wanted to take my skin off. Performing is always a striptease but in writing you uncover stuff you didn’t know you were wearing.” He continues, “At the far end of experience, through wisdom, we hope to recover innocence.” Here is a man who is self-aware. Listening to the interview with Howard Stern, Bono expresses his dissatisfaction with his singing in some of the best music U2 has had to offer. While some may be sick of the swag with which Bono carries himself, he never seems to come across as self-righteous, at least to me, and these songs reveal a man who has come to a midway point in his life. He is looking behind and looking ahead and sharing his humble gleanings.

After my countless listening of Songs of Experience, I feel more connected to these recordings than I did with my initial listening. Isn’t that the way of relationship, though? We dig intimately deeper into another human being, we expose ourselves, revealing the good with the bad, the beautiful with the raw, and we connect.

In a world where connection seems to be confused with something that we can do digitally, I’m glad that U2 has embraced the idea of pulling songs together with cohesion and intentionality rather than simply seeking out a hit. This is a record that invites multiple listening. As someone who doesn’t always impress or astound in my initial meetings and encounters with people, I’m grateful for the grace of those 2nd and 3rd meetings and encounters. That same grace should be extended to these songs. I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Essential Worship – A Book Review

essential-worshipThere may be nothing more contentious within the church than the worship ministries. What music should be played? Is it too loud? Who should lead? How close (or far) are we to God’s plan for corporate worship? The questions go on and on and it seems that there are all kinds of answers from every possible direction.

“Essential Worship” by Greg Scheer is a helpful handbook for leaders. Whether those leaders be pastors, worship leaders, worship directors, worship pastors, or whoever, Scheer has done a thorough job of putting together a handbook that can be used by these leaders to help them in leading their ministries.

This book is divided into five parts: Principles, Past, Practice: Music in Worship, Practice: The Arts in Worship, and People.

In the Principles section, Scheer starts with the primary and most important topic: what is worship” He leads the reader through other principles such as what is Biblical worship, who is the audience, and what does worship do. He moves into the Past section and invites the reader to look at the past as well as various methods and modes of worship that have been used throughout the history of the church.

Parts three and four are a helpful foray into the practice of worship within the church. Scheer does a very good job of remaining balanced by offering thoughts and suggestions from both past as well as current repertoires and methods. While it seems that his experience may be in traditional forms of worship, it does not seem to bias his viewpoint.

Part five is about the various people involved in worship leadership within the church: pastors, leaders, musicians, and the like. Scheer offers some beneficial advice here on how to move through potential conflict.

There are nuggets of information scattered throughout this book. It’s not necessarily a book meant to be read front to back but can instead be used as a resource. After all, it is called a handbook. Scheer’s experience, wisdom, and thorough research into this book is apparent and it will serve church worship leaders well.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

The Boy Who Could

bowie aladdinI came into the world of pop music late in life. Well, late in life in comparison to many of my friends. In fact, there were two things that shaped my infatuation with music that would continue for the rest of my life.

The first was my parents’ prohibition of anything outside of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) and easy listening such as The Carpenters, Andy Williams, Percy Faith, Perry Como, and an assortment of other treasures you can find in your local Goodwill’s record collection. I just wasn’t allowed to listen to “secular” music and was even brought to one of those “Rock Talks” that were so popular in the 80’s where some “expert” stood up and went on and on about all of the popular music groups and what kind of satanic and hedonistic messages they were promoting. Sadly, I probably got my list of “What To Listen To” from that talk.

The second thing was General Music in 8th grade with Mr. O’Donnell. I didn’t actually take the class, I played trumpet in the concert band, but on the days when the band director was absent, I was fortunate enough to have Mr. O’Donnell as a substitute for my class. I had heard the stories of what they did in General Music class over and over again, so I was pleased to finally get a taste of it firsthand.

I remember the day that I walked into class and saw O’Donnell (as we affectionately called him) with the stereo out, all ready to start playing “Name That Tune.” I was so excited….until we actually started playing. I realized just how far I was from the reality of pop music when song after song was played and my ability to identify any of them was virtually non-existent. I think there was a part of me that died that day and another part that made a secret vow to never find myself so humiliated again.

Those two things really shaped the way that I see music to this day. My collection is eclectic and large. It’s hard to pin me down to a favorite style as I like a lot of stuff. Some people say that and then you find out that their so-called “eclectic” style is much more narrow than you thought. When I say “eclectic” though, I mean anything from Iron Maiden to Andy Williams, Anthrax to The Carpenters, Megadeth to Les Miserables, and everything in between.

I’m not sure the first time that I heard David Bowie. I have a feeling that he must have been named at one of those “Rock Talks” I went to during my formative years. After all, he was an androgynous spaceman who had been rumored to be bisexual, why else wouldn’t he end up on that list?

Regardless of my first hearing of him, I remember listening to “Space Oddity” and wondering about Ground Control and Major Tom. I remember hearing his collaborations with Freddy Mercury and Queen on “Under Pressure,” with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets,” and with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” When I finally came to the place in my life when I heard his song “Heroes,” I’m pretty sure he had me at, “I will be king.”

While I’ve never been a huge fan of Bowie, I can say that I have appreciated his versatility and talent over the years. This past Friday, on the occasion of his 69th birthday, Bowie released his 28th studio album “Blackstar.” That’s quite a career considering he could never be fully pinned down, never lingering in any one thing for long enough for anyone to pigeon-hole him. He was constantly reinventing himself, in fact, it seems that over and over, the headlines are posthumously labeling him “The Master of Reinvention.” He understood the notion of reinvention before Madonna was even a blip on the pop culture radar screen.

As I woke to the news of Bowie’s death on Monday morning, there was a bleakness and sadness that I felt. January is a hard time for me as it marks my mom and dad’s anniversary as well as the date when we discovered that my mom had cancer. Hearing the news of Bowie’s passing from cancer reopened old wounds that never seem to close.

Over the course of the days leading up to Monday, I had been watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (a blog post in and of itself) and had been feeling the heaviness and poignancy of that film, so the news of Bowie’s death fueled the fire of melancholy that had already been lit.

I think the sadness that came from knowing Bowie was gone was multi-faceted. He is a dying breed, there are not many true artists who are willing to shun public opinion to do their own thing. In these days of Auto-tune, 3 minute songs, and drippy lyrics, artists are a dying breed.

Another aspect of it is that there is something to be said about taking a chance and being willing to fail. All of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not, are too willing to play it safe, to do the thing that is comfortable and familiar rather than trying something new. Bowie is an inspiration to try something new and different, regardless of whether everyone rejects you and criticizes you. It’s a reminder to me that taking chances should be second nature to me, especially as someone who claims to follow the King of Creation who knit everything together.

David Bowie proved to the world that taking chances is worth the risk. He never seemed afraid to try something different and he was never afraid to abandon something that no longer seemed to fit. He proved himself a boy who could in the midst of a world of boys who “know that they can’t.” His artistic spirit will be missed and I can only hope that others might find that same adventurous and risky spirit in order that it might live on.

The Carols of Christmas – A Book Review

The Carols of ChristmasFew things will generate such an emotional response as one’s opinion of Christmas music. It seems that when it’s played, how it’s played, and what is played are among the most contentious of issues when it comes to holiday musical fare. Everyone has their thoughts and favorites when it comes to Christmas songs and hymns.

It’s interesting to dig down a little into some of the songs and hymns that have become so well-loved and cherished over the years and hear a little bit about the stories behind them. How did they originate? How have they evolved? Who wrote them? Where do they come from?

It’s just that kind of background information Andrew Gant shares in “The Carols of Christmas.” Gant, a composer, choirmaster, church musician, university teacher, and writer, has done his homework in putting together a thorough (but not exhaustive) and enjoyable compilation with stories of some of these Christmas songs that many have come to know and love throughout the years.

From “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to “O Holy Night” to “Away In a Manger” and even “Jingle Bells,” Gant shares information about these hymns and the journey that they have been on from origin and through their evolution to the songs that we know today. It’s interesting to read the background stories here. Some songs have evolved from ancient and pagan roots to eventually be connected to the Christian holiday. Other songs have questionable theology or history (did the baby Jesus really not cry and did three ships come sailing into Bethlehem?).

Gant uses images throughout the book to show some of the history in these songs. He also includes full versions of the songs for those whose musical inclinations would allow them to play the songs themselves. It’s a helpful tool to be reminded of what it is that you’ve been reading about throughout each chapter.

While it’s not necessary for one to be a musician to read this, it certainly helps. Some of the terms and phrases that Gant uses may go over the heads of those with little to no musical experience or training.

“The Carols of Christmas” is not exhaustive, and Gant admits that. While there are 21 songs covered in here, Gant mostly sticks to those that would be familiar to anyone who would open up a hymnal in a church. For the casual reader, musician, or hymn singer, I would be hard-pressed to believe that he hasn’t covered what would be expected. While there were no songs that were as surprising as Gant’s subtitle (“A celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs”) might suggest, it was an entertaining read that I may very well refer to every year when I find myself singing these songs throughout the season once again.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)