The Phantom Tollbooth
November '98 Pick of the Month
 
You are There 
Artist: Ashley Cleveland 
Label: Cadence Communications
Tracks: 11 tracks/47:02 

Ashley Cleveland's live album is finally out and, man, does it rock! Cleveland's bluesy/gutsy/passionate vocals give me goosebumps every time I hear this CD. At times she'll belt out with everything she's got, others, she softens her vocals to extend her emotional range. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone hearing Ashley Cleveland would not be moved. Listening to this project reminds me of attending concerts and festivals twenty years ago where my friends and I would just get "lost" in the music.

You are There was produced by Cleveland's husband, Kenny Greenberg, whose artistry on lead guitar is outstanding. His talent is showcased on songs such as "He Is" and "You are There." He heads up an impressive roster of outstanding musicians including Michael Rhodes, Chad Cromwell, Phil Madeira, Pat Buchanan, Kim Keyes and Tabitha Fair (Amy Grant's backing singers), Jerry Dale McFadden, Vince Santoro, and Harry Stinson.

The opening cut on the album is the band's rendition of "Gimme Shelter," a song originally written and recorded by The Rolling Stones, that Cleveland and company perform with a raw intensity rarely heard in Christian music circles. The first single released to radio, stations nationwide have enthusiastically embraced it, a hopeful sign that Cleveland may finally receive the recognition she so richly deserves.

There are four other songs on this album not previously released. Cleveland and Greenberg penned "Your Saving Grace," which reminds us that it is God’s grace that sustains us in our walk with God even when tragedy strikes. We can always depend on Him. The song is performed on a National steel guitar with a soulful, jazz sound.

"Lucky Never Had it So Good," an upbeat tempo rock 'n' roll tune performed by full band, is about a person who feels lucky because God has blessed them with the love of their life. She/he knows for certain that God called them to this relationship, and they're committed to seeing it through no matter how difficult it may get. Would Greenberg and Cleveland be talking about their relationship? "Lucky" is one of my favorites on this album.

"There Goes My Baby" is a blues tune performed on acoustic guitar with very soulful, emotional vocals that are a perfect match for the topic: a mother who is watching her wayward daughter grow up, reliving the pain and agony of her own mistake-ridden past. Despite the depressing topic, this is a hopeful song as it is in the form of an intercessory prayer.

Cleveland teamed up with her good friend Pam Tillis for the last new song, "You Don't Have to Take This from Me," on acoustic folk guitar. It is about a faithful, loving, open, honest, and real woman who is willing to give her all to make the relationship with the man she loves work even while she reluctantly admits to herself that although he says he loves her, he doesn’t want to make a commitment. When she tells him, "You don't have to take this from me," I believe she is saying she doesn't have to take that from him.

The remainder of the songs on this album were released on Cleveland's three prior studio albums.

From Big Town, Cleveland sings Andrae Crouch's "Soon and Very Soon," (we are going to see the King) acappella. The sound swells as the full band joins her to segue into "Big Town," the powerful anthem about her hope to meet everyone in heaven one day.

Three songs were drawn from Lesson of Love: Buddy Greene's "He Is" with a fabulous piano solo leading into one of Greenberg's stellar guitar solos on the album; the title track, "You are There," composed by Cleveland and Greenberg reminding us of God’s scriptural promise to never leave or forsake us; and Cleveland's jazzy arrangement of the MacKay/Husband hymn "Revive Us Again."

Last, but not least, Cleveland's "Henry Doesn't Care," from Bus Named Desire is a rock tune named for Cleveland and Greenberg's son. God tells us to come to him like children, and this song about the honest, unpretentious, carefree life that a child leads is a good reminder of the things our children can teach us if we'll only open our eyes and see.

In most cases, I prefer the live recordings on this project to the original studio recordings because the passion and freedom of the musicians is clearly felt. Also, the backing vocalists are brought up in the mix to complement Cleveland’s full-throttle alto. Between them and the talented musicians Greenberg has assembled, this always feels like a collaboration, not a one-woman show.

You are There is Cleveland's fourth album. It will appeal to those between the ages of 25 and 50, in both the Christian and secular markets who enjoy blues, rock 'n' roll and jazz. Also worth noting is there is very little time wasted with talking on this project making You are There a worthwhile investment in great music.

By Trish Patterson (10/31/98)

If you haven’t had the good fortune to catch an Ashley Cleveland show at Cornerstone, or seen her on tour with Rich Mullins, or bothered to track down her name as a back-up singer on oh so many recent albums, this CD will take you entirely by surprise. Cleveland has come into her own as a rich alto singer, and holds nothing back on this powerful live CD. Her delivery is worthy of a black gospel choir soloist, but her song choice and settings evoke memories of Janis Joplin. The opening cover of the Rolling Stones' “Gimme Shelter” show that few "safe" songs were selected on a project surprisingly born in the heart of CCM-country. The combination of Cleveland’s powerful voice and her husband’s blazing rock guitar are unstoppable, and who would want to? Rock on for Jesus, you two!

By Linda T. Stonehocker (11/8/98)

It's always hard to know what to expect from a live album. Live recordings have the potential to be very good or very bad. A good live album will capture the performer's energy, spontaneity and interaction with the audience, showing depths to the performer that the rehearsed, overdubbed, choose-the-best-take environment of a recording studio will never show. The best live albums allow the listener to imagine being at the performance.

On the other hand, the uncontrolled environment of a live performance means that even the best engineer may not be able to make a recording that will capture the energy and intimacy of the concert. There is also a downside to not being in the studio: not all the bad notes, unintended feedback, etc. can be taken out in mixing. Indeed, many live recordings must be extensively re-engineered to make the sound more listenable.

So it is that I approached Ashley Cleveland's latest album, You Are There, with some uncertainty.  Would the recording truly capture all that makes an Ashley Cleveland concert worth attending? Would the limitations of live recording overpower the energy and spontaneity of the performance? Does having her own label mean that she will be able to do her best work without worrying about the bottom line?

I am pleased to say that this is an album worth owning and hearing. The assembled performances capture Cleveland's ability to write and sing from the heart. The tracks include songs which she sings with only her own guitar accompaniment, songs backed by Kenny Greenberg's guitar mastery, and songs with a full band complete with keyboards and harmony vocalists.

There are different ways to sing the blues, and Cleveland handles them all well. There are the simple acoustic settings of "There Goes My Baby" and "You Don't Have To Take This From Me." Greenberg adds soulful National (slide) guitar licks to "Your Saving Grace." There is the full band groove of "Gimme Shelter" and "Lucky Never Had It So Good." Cleveland does a good job of fitting her vocals to whoever is playing behind her.

Cleveland wrote most of the songs she performs, and the album provides a good sample of her writing over the last eight years. Cleveland writes very personal lyrics about the ups and downs, joys and fears of her life.  On the up side, there are the songs "Big Town" (paired with Andrae Crouch's "Soon and Very Soon") and "Lucky Never Had It So Good." "Big Town" is remarkable in that this version is played slower than the original version on her album of the same name.  But that is not to say that it is played with less energy. Instead, the slower tempo highlights the lyrics {"I'm in no hurry now/ I've got a pretty good ride/ But it's good to know where I'm bound") and suggests that that last eight years have taught Cleveland that the journey to the big town requires endurance rather than headlong flight.

Cleveland's honesty extends as usual to acknowledging her struggles and fears. As a counterpoint to "Lucky Never Had It So Good," which focuses on her marriage as a gift from God, the album finishes with a song from before her marriage, "You Don't Have to Take This From Me," recounting the end of a relationship. The anxieties of a parent come through in "There Goes My Baby" and "Henry Doesn't Care."

At the heart of Cleveland and Greenberg's life, though, is the grace of God, and she sings clearly about her faith. "Your Saving Grace," "He Is," "Revive Us Again," and "You Are There" make her gratitude to God for all the blessings in her life crystal clear to the listener. But God and faith figure strongly in other songs she sings as well.

The album suffers from the sonic limitations of the recordings. Kenny Greenberg does his best with the mix, but on the full band tracks the vocals and instruments don't mesh as they would if recorded under controlled conditions. The quality of the performances does a lot to overcome the weaknesses. The tracks where Cleveland sings with just a guitar or two backing her sound good.

Cleveland's talents deserve wider recognition than she has yet gotten. With the direct control over her work that having her own label affords her, I hope that she will continue to provide listeners with the quality work that marked her previous albums. In her recent interview with the Tollbooth, Cleveland expressed her hope that this album would provide seed money that would allow her to make her next studio album. Since she expressed her belief that the songs she had written for the new album were among the best she has written, I hope that the live album suceeds in doing so.

Chris Parks  1/12/99

Hand her an acoustic guitar and let her sing along with those distinctive, gutsy pipes, and you've got yourself a respectable concert experience. Back her up with her band and it's an arena rock event. Either way, you're in for an unparalleled show worth hearing. This disc offers Ashley Cleveland and her hearty songs of faith, family, and love in both settings, singing her soul out solo and with her smoking band. Her husband, Kenny "monster guitar player" Greenburg, wails on electric and National guitars, and Phil Madeira guests on Hammond B-3, while the solid rhythm section of Michael Rhodes on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums drives everything along admirably. Plus there are special guests and some great new material amidst the live standards. About the only improvement you could make to this mix is the inclusion of a blistering, red-hot live version of "Better You Get Ready." But the jamming action of "He Is" and "You Are There," as well as the cover of Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter," nearly suffice. Among woman blues rock players, Ashley Cleveland is both peerless and near perfection.

Steven S. Baldwin 7/6/99