It’s a bittersweet period for fans of gospel legend Sandi Patty, who brought her “Forever Grateful Farewell Tour” to Takoma Park, Md., last weekend.
Though her bread and butter and greatest fame was among white U.S. evangelicals, she never shunned gays (which is more than we could say for Anita Bryant) and though always careful to never say anything too overtly supportive — she’d rocked her base enough with an early ‘90s divorce and paid a huge price for it — she’s had gays in her camp for years and never batted an eye at her legions of gay fans.
Returning to the same church (Sligo Seventh-day Adventist) where she wrapped her “Everlasting Tour” last year at this time, Patty — this was the 70th show of her 120-city tour slated to wrap with a San Juan cruise in early 2017 — pulled out all the stops and delivered her most elaborate stage show since her “Le Voyage”-era shows circa 1993.
In recent years, most non-seasonal Patty concerts have consisted of her singing to tracks while longtime pianist Steve Potts accompanied her (though “Another Time Another Place Tour” vet Jay Rouse has been with her the last couple years). On a lucky night, the church choir would back her on a few numbers. But for this show, Patty has a four-piece band, several family members doubling as backup singers (including husband Don Peslis and son Jon Helvering), the five-man “popera” group Veritas and on many if not all nights, a choir as well. The lighting and video, featuring many classic Patty career clips, is also far more elaborate than in recent years.
Only a curmudgeon would balk at the set list which featured a robust array of Patty classics such as the tender “In Heaven’s Eyes,” gospel barn-burner (and Patty concert staple) “Yes God is Real,” sing-along classic “Love in Any Language” and, of course, “We Shall Behold Him,” the 1982 GMA song of the year that was Patty’s first big hit (though she’d made her major-label debut in 1979).
While some may lament that too many classics like “Upon This Rock” or “Let There Be Praise” were glossed over in mere seconds in several lengthy medleys, it covered a lot of classic ground the same way it’s done at a Janet Jackson concert. Sure, if somebody like Bruce Springsteen took this approach, it would sound like a groan-inducing sellout or lounge act, but since so many of Patty’s most-loved songs are stylistically similar and feature rafter-raising (and vocally taxing) climaxes that make Celine Dion’s material sound positively reserved, it made sense to take the medley approach. Especially effective was a few lines of “The Day He Wore My Crown” added to the “Via Dolorosa” medley since the spring leg of the tour and a duets medley that found the jaw-droppingly talented Veritas guys standing in impressively for Larnelle Harris and Wayne Watson on Patty’s classic duets.
Although it’s nice to see material from Patty’s latest (and she claims final) studio album “Forever Grateful” included such as “Anthem of Praise” and “All I Gotta Do,” perhaps a better choice for the latter slot would have been a medley of “Face to Faith,” “Willing to Wait,” “Someone Up There Loves Me,” “Pour on the Power” and maybe “Somebody Believed,” those tear-it-up gospel numbers Patty was always so great at delivering. Or maybe even an alternate praise medley with second-tier hits like “Shine Down,” “King of Glory” and “Come Let’s Worship Him.” Oh well — when you have a 35-year body of work to pull from, you can’t cover everything. The only legit complaint was that the choir wasn’t high enough in the sound mix and got lost more often than not.
Patty was in resplendent voice throughout. At 60, her robust soprano sounds as booming as ever. She does sound different than she did 30 years ago — there’s a heavier body to her timbre than there used to be but for me it’s a handy tradeoff. She may have had a more bell-like clarion purity to her vocals back then, but there was also a slight brassiness to her upper register that, to my ear, has been calibrated by age. She said in a pre-show Q&A session that wanted to go out on top and not be one of those singers who hung on too long. Ehhhh, I see what she’s saying but hate to see her hanging it up when the money notes are still so gloriously there.
I’m hoping, of course, that she’ll pull a Cher or Tina Turner on us and after five or seven years of home life and grandkids realize she misses the thrill of the crowd, or at least the pull of the studio. Even when eschewing her trademark high notes on lower-key albums like “Simply Sandi” or “Christmas Blessings,” Patty is always compelling. While it left many fans cold, the latter, a 2014 release that was her jazziest effort ever, made for enticing evidence that she might be wholly compelling and convincing doing non-seasonal material in that vein. A stool, a little jazz combo, some standards — she could totally pull it off.
However if she is content to raise heirloom tomatoes or teach (which she will be doing) or whatever, she has more than earned the right having spent 35 years schlepping around the country. Her oeuvre is a staggering body of work, especially from, oh, say 1981-1993, a particularly white-hot decade-plus that stands the test of time the same way the Beatles canon or the Beethoven sonatas do.
Patty was peerless because she was the right artist at the right time with the right voice and the right drive with access to the best songwriters, producers (especially Greg Nelson) and arrangers at a time when she enjoyed a nice, long run before the internet started eating savagely into budgets and major record labels.
And nobody ever talks about this, but her heyday also happened to be when big was in. It’s no coincidence that “Dallas” — and everything’s bigger in Texas — was the biggest show of the ‘80s right at the time Patty was belting out “We Shall Behold Him” and “Upon This Rock.” The planets aligned and she didn’t just hit the gospel music zeitgest, she was it. And yet — another oft-missed point — you never felt bludgeoned by her. As an adult, I’ve come to admire her tender moments like “There is a Savior” and “O Calvary’s Lamb” to a degree approaching the big stuff.
Her career eventually self-corrected to the point that she was by the 2010s probably about where she would have been anyway had her divorce from John Helvering — whose mug is curiously whitewashed from the tourbook and flashback photos, though he was at her Ohio concert two weeks ago — not wiped the luster off her ‘80s dominance (she never won a Grammy, had an RIAA certification for gold or platinum or filled an arena on her own after that). Personal travails notwithstanding, it coincided with a period of artistic experimentation on albums like “Find it On the Wings” and “These Days” that didn’t always fully jell. But of course you expect that in any lengthy career. Her lowest lows artistically were never egregious. There was always something to love on every album.
But for a moment last Sunday night, it might as well have been 1986 or 1988 again and Patty held court in all her glory. For us long-time total geek-out fans, she has enriched our lives immeasurably.
1. Anthem of Praise
2. Praise Medley
3. MEDLEY: Agnus Dei/A Mighty Fortress/All Hail the Power (Veritas)
4. Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee
5. Love Will Be Our Home
6. Farther Along
7. The Prayer
8. In Heaven’s Eyes
9. MEDLEY: Upon This Rock/They Could Not/In the Name of the Lord/How Great Thou Art
* Star-Spangled Banner video montage
10. I Can Only Imagine (Veritas)
11. The Lord’s Prayer (Veritas)
12. Love in Any Language
13. All I Gotta Do
14. Yes, God is Real
15. MEDLEY: Another Time, Another Place/More Than Wonderful/I’ve Just Seen Jesus
16. Revelation Song
17. MEDLEY: The Day He Wore My Crown/Via Dolorosa/The Old Rugged Cross
18. We Shall Behold Him
19. It Is Well With My Soul
20. How We Love (Beth Nielsen Chapman cover)
* In the In-Between was performed at a pre-concert Q&A session