A big little show featuring three solo recording artists--newcomer Sarah Masen, veteran showman Randy Stonehill, and God's gift to guitars, Phil Keaggy--kept over nine hundred concertgoers spellbound February 1st at Wheaton College.
Opener Sarah Masen has matured as an artist since she debuted her self-titled album at Cornerstone Festival '96 eight months ago. The cute, silly girl on stage back then had a hard time holding the audience's attention, even with a full band. The economic realities of touring have forced her to play solo ever since, and it's starting to pay off. The ditzy mannerisms of the "All Fall Down" music video have dropped away, revealing an intense, yet likable, singer-songwriter. She held the auditorium in her spell with mainly new, unrecorded material including "Fragrance of Pink," based on the writings of George MacDonald, and a cover of "Veronica" by Elvis Costello, an up tempo, wry perspective of aging women. "Mercy" sums up her past six-month struggle towards self-awareness. While she managed the technical problems of alternate tunings well, and charmingly introduced her songs to an unfamiliar, yet receptive crowd, it was unclear why she didn't play more selections from her current CD.
Randy Stonehill didn't appreciate being introduced as having 26 years experience in Christian music. Bounding on-stage, he assured everyone he was no fossil and proved it with manic stream-of-consciousness monologues worthy of Jim Carrey. While he didn't play any new material, the songs effectively took his listeners from hilarity ("Great Big Stupid World," "Under the Rug") to introspection ("Turning Thirty") to pathos ("Mary," a ballad about his grandmother). He ended his set by recounting the recent experience of meeting his now-grown Haitian Compassion International child. It was so effective that, of the nineteen children presented, seventeen found sponsors during the intermission.
Hearing Phil Keaggy live is entirely different than listening to anything he's recorded. Time stood still as he glided through favorites and requests such as "Getting Closer," "Abraham," "Wild Heart," and "Salvation Army Band," expanding them into soaring explorations of improvisation. On several songs, he created an entire back-up band for himself by laying down loops of bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, even multi-voiced background vocals through his guitar pickup and an electronic box known as a "JamMan," then nimbly climbing towards the sun again on flying melodies and airs.
In "Auburn," a new song for red-haired wife Bernadette "Bern" Keaggy that continues Phil's penchant for punning on the names of family members, harp runs tripped out lightly. Switching to electric guitar, even a Keaggy warm-up was a pleasure as he settled into the new gear with an instrumental medley that included "Tennessee Morning" from 220. Back to acoustic, Keaggy, once more arranging on the fly, finished his set with a warm version of "True Believers."
The evening united the relaxed, mixed crowd of college students and people their parent's age, all of whom appreciated the opportunity to hear old friends perform, yet counted on a few surprises. They knew to expect the unexpected and were not disappointed by these two veterans and a promising newcomer.