Last week at the Kennedy Center provided a rare one-two punch for lovers of ’80s/’90s CCM (contemporary Christian music) — Michael W. Smith played the Concert Hall July 1 with the True North Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of David Hamilton; Sandi Patty played the same room two nights later — an unrelated coincidence — with the Bellevue Baptist Church Choir & Orchestra, a Memphis-area-based church outfit.
Smith’s concert was part of a larger event that found hundreds of his fans descending upon the capitol to see sights, though standalone tickets were available for the concert. Smith tours constantly, but it’s a fairly rare opportunity to see him with such lavish accompaniment.
Patty has retired from major touring but, thankfully, still makes occasional appearances. Historically the best chance you had to see either one with full orchestra was at a Christmas concert, so both concerts were refreshing changes of pace.
Smith truly headlined at his concert singing or playing on (several numbers were instrumentals from his “Freedom” and “Glory” albums) all but the opening number, a choral arrangement of his song “Shine On Us” recorded by Phillips, Craig and Dean on the classic ’95 multi-artist album “My Utmost For His Highest.” There were 62 in the orchestra/band and about 196 in the choir.
The Patty concert was more half and half, with Patty and four family members (husband Don Peslis, stepdaughter Aly Peslis, daughter-in-law Katie Peslis and son Jon Helvering) singing on 10 of 20 selections, the rest handled by the 130-voice choir and 34-piece orchestra.
Standouts included the Patty classic “Love in Any Language,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from “Carousel”), “God Bless America” and Patty’s trademark rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which she debuted to acclaim at the rededication of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. She doesn’t go up quite as high on the big final note as she did 30 years ago, but her voice still sounds mighty and robust. On her 2017 farewell tour, it was played on a video montage, so it was great to hear it live.
Especially nice to hear were renditions of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” which Patty has never recorded. YouTube clips have surfaced the last couple years from patriotic summer mini-tours Patty and her family have given (never in our region) but there’s no comparison to hearing them live. Both were stately and regal.
The Bellevue group was better than I expected in a rousing, shimmying set (many arrangements were by accompanist/arranger Josh Stewart who was at the piano most of the evening) that included bombastic medleys, gospel standards and hymns. All the soloists were stellar but standouts were Cooper Patrick who delivered a rollicking “Walking in Memphis” with true star power and Audrey Lawrence on gospel barnburner “Heaven Bound.”
Soprano Lisa Parker initially seemed to have the deck stacked against her tackling “The Lord’s Prayer” just moments after the great Patty had left the stage, but she acquitted herself nicely with an understated performance that felt both delicate and sturdy.
Interestingly, Patty seemed most energized on two of the quieter numbers — “His Eye is On the Sparrow,” which she sang with just piano accompaniment from her long-time pianist Jay Rouse, and during the encore, a richly harmonized rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul” she sang sans mics with her family. They’ve done numbers like this at other concerts; it always whets my appetite for a whole evening of this sort of thing. They truly give Chanticleer and Pentatonix a run for their money with their a cappella harmony work.
Patty seemed in good spirits greeting and offering sign language to long-time fans such as Lee Tucker in the first couple rows. Minor quibble: um, hello — blue gown change for act II? We know you have ’em, girl.
Smith’s concert ran the gamut from glistening instrumentals (“Glory Overture”), a roiling Christmas number “Gloria” that brought to mind the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, choral worship thunder on “Total Praise” and even a swampy spiritual “Down to the River to Pray” from one of Smith’s Cracker Barrel hymns projects.
Things meandered a bit in the second half during a lengthy worship set in which the orchestra and choir sat out and Smith and his usual band took the reins. None of it was bad — these passages are a staple of Smith’s usual concerts — but at the Kennedy Center, it felt like filler, as if there weren’t quite enough charts done for a full evening of symphonic work so they padded it with easy-to-deliver classic Smitty worship fare.
The crowd enjoyed it just fine but the orchestra players looked bored out of their minds (perhaps they were merely deferring, who knows). Two Mikes who showed up — Pence and Pompeo (along with Karen Pence, the second lady) — were rapt if not especially demonstrative. Smitty’s crowd — almost all white Bible Belt evangelicals — went wild when they were introduced. I somehow managed not to vomit. It’s not so much that I mind political dissent — that’s fine and healthy — but it was a stark, right-there-in-front-of-you reminder of the white evangelical infatuation with this administration. How anyone takes it seriously is beyond me.
Another downside to Smitty’s set was that it was almost identical to a Kennedy Center concert he gave with the same choir and orchestra in Jan., 2014 with 14 songs (pretty much everything but the worship set) carried over verbatim. It was all stellar, but I’d hoped in five years time, Smith could have managed at least a new orchestration or two of selections from his mammoth catalogue. He constantly talks about how many songs he has to choose from in his vast discography and how there’s no way to get to everything. Well, that’s all fine and good but don’t show up five years later with the same set (pretty much) and expect us to buy that hollow line again (in fairness, he has gotten better at digging deep in his “regular” concerts the last couple years).
His canned bromides, while good natured, are also pretty stale — he says “I will never forget this night” at every concert, he’s playing “Gloria” (a Christmas song) because “it’s my show” and he never knew he’d be playing trademark hit “Friends” “the rest of my life.” There’s just a hint of a chip on his shoulder while Patty exudes graciousness.
And while lustrous, none of it was terribly interesting. Like so much of the fare we hear when the NSO Pops appears with pop acts like Diana Ross or Melissa Etheridge, the strings just sort of saw away, the brass adds a little punch here and there and that’s about it. I was hoping, for instance, when we got to the big electric guitar solo on Smitty classic “Place in This World,” the strings would have gone crazy with some totally new contrapuntal interlude but nah — in came the anachronistic electric guitar shooting out the exact same thing that’s on the album version.
Huge missed opportunity. With such vast arsenals of instrumentation at one’s disposal, why are the arrangements always so blah, so predictable? Smith’s long-time touring comrade Jim Daneker is a musical genius — I salivate imagining what cool stuff he could come up with given the time. And not that there was anything too wildly wonderful going on at the Patty show either but her arrangements (both vintage and those from Bellevue) just sounded less forced, more idiomatically orchestral.
Neither artist managed to quite fill the nearly 2,442-seat Concert Hall, but Smith, on a Monday night no less, came closer (and with vastly higher ticket prices). Patty’s concert didn’t appear to be well publicized; it’s a shame, too — it was a rare chance for Washingtonians to hear the gospel music legend who last played here at Sligo Church in November, 2016.
Nothing LGBT about either concert (although Patty has a legion of gay fans); both artists are straight. Just a fun couple nights out worth reporting on.
Michael W. Smith
True North Orchestra & Chorus
David Hamilton, conductor
STARTS: 7:05 p.m.
Shine On Us (choir)
Glory Overture (inst./orch+MWS)
Great is the Lord (MWS/choir/orch)
Ancient Words/Thy Word (MWS/choir/orch)
Above All (MWS/band)
Whitaker’s Wonder (inst./orch+MWS)
The Giving (inst./orch+MWS)
There She Stands (MWS/choir/orch)
America the Beautiful (MWS/band)
Place in This World (MWS/orch)
INTERMISSION (20 minutes)
13. Freedom (inst./orch+MWS)
14. Down to the River to Pray (MWS/choir/orch)
15. Total Praise (MWS/choir/band)
16. Do it Again (MWS/band)
17. Surrounded (MWS/band)
18. Healing Rain (MWS/band)
19. Great Are You Lord (MWS/band)
20. Agnus Dei (MWS/choir/orch)
21. Friends (MWS/choir/orch)
Total Praise reprise
Sandi Patty & Family
Bellevue Baptist Church
Choir & Orchestra
STARTS: 8:03 p.m.
A Mighty Fortress (choir/orch)
Patriot’s Song Medley (choir/orch)
Tennessee Medley (choir/orch)
INTRO OF SANDI — 8:23
4. Battle Hymn of the Republic (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
5. Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
6. What a Wonderful World (Sandi/piano)
7. The Star-Spangled Banner (Sandi/choir/orch)
SANDI EXITS — 8:47
8. Salute to the Armed Forces (choir/orch)
9. Taps/The Lord’s Prayer (choir/orch)
10. Be Thou My Vision (choir/orch)
11. Say Amen (choir/orch)
12. Heaven Bound (choir/orch)
13. That’s Why God (choir/orch)
14. Christ is Born (choir/orch)
SANDI RETURNS 9:29
15. Anthem of Praise (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
16. Love in Any Language (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
17. His Eye is On the Sparrow (Sandi/piano)
18. You’ll Never Walk Alone (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
19. God Bless America (Sandi/fam/choir/orch)
20. It is Well With My Soul (Sand/fam)