Cross Rhythms man in Edinburgh Tom Lennie caught some acts of Christian interest at this year's EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE
For just three weeks in August - between 7th and 31st - Edinburgh's 2009 Festival Fringe saw 18,091 performers in 2098 different shows, stage 34,255 performances in 265 city venues. It's a staggering arts extravaganza with a breathtaking diversity of art-forms - music, comedy, theatre, dance, musicals, opera, exhibitions, comedy and children's shows. Sadly, only a small fraction of these shows stem from a distinctly Christian base. Of those Christian artists who did appear, remarkably few got even a mention in the plethora of Fringe Review pages that appeared in a stream of daily newspapers and Arts publications. A sad reflection on the place Christianity is seen to play in the Arts world in the West. Not disheartened, and with my free Press Pass - courtesy of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society - I set out to experience some of those shows largely overlooked by the secular media.
ANGEL SMYTHE AND THE SADDLEBACK PEACE
This was one of the few Festival events that did not take place in the city centre; occurring instead in the attractive Parish Church of the suburban district of Colinton Mains. Hosted by the city's All Nations Christian Fellowship (whose pastor Steve Aitken hails from Oregon), this vivacious group of around 20 mixed-sex choir members are part of southern California's mammoth Saddleback Church, pastored by Rick Warren, best known for The Purpose Driven Life, the bestselling hardback in American history, I'm told, with over 30 million copies sold worldwide. The choir was led by Angel Smythe, a longstanding singer/songwriter who has worked with the likes of Crystal Lewis, Natalie Grant, Tommy Walker and Darlene Zschech. The repertoire consisted of a selection of worship and inspirational numbers, some well known, others penned by Smythe. No introduction was needed for favourites like "Blessed Be Your Name", "How Deep The Father's Love" or "Shout To The Lord", all sung with great gusto and in fine harmony. Among Angel's own songs came "Let It Show", a gently-flowing solo, the even softer, reassuring "Rest In You" and "Journey Of Today", from which Smythe's debut album takes its title. The lyrics of these songs, along with the words of spiritual encouragement that were offered between them, and with a powerful two-part drama piece emphasising the unconditional love of Christ, all revealed how strongly the team view their work as a ministry. Indeed, the team made it clear they had not travelled the six thousand miles to Scotland's capital (largely at their own individual expense I later found out) not just to show off their considerable talents, but to share the love of Christ with both city residents and the many pleasure-seekers who descend on the place at this time of year. Smythe's vocals seemed to be strongest during her stirring rendition of "Great Is Thy Faithfulness", the able tones of both herself and her choristers not perfectly relayed by the less than state of the art sound system (which belonged to the church, not the choir). All in all a delightful performance.
Know of any professional opera singer who can ably crossover to a full evening of popular music and chat while fully retaining his or her credibility? Such are the talents of 48-year-old operatic bass baritone Jonathan Veira, who has performed in innumerable grand opera houses across the globe (he can sing in seven languages!), in an equally impressive variety of guises, and to considerable acclaim. Nearer to home, he is a regular guest on Songs Of Praise and on BBC Radio, and while wearing his "contemporary" hat, he regularly performs shows at Bible weeks like Spring Harvest and Detling, and in churches across the land. Billed An Audience With Jonathan Veira, the singer proved to be thoroughly adept on keyboard and guitar and sounded completely at home in a range of styles and sounds; from Louis Armstrong ("What A Wonderful World") to Billy Joel, to Gershwin, to Eric Bibb ("Want Jesus To Walk With Me"). He's also known to do an impressive Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and even Coldplay! But it doesn't stop there. In-between each song, indeed taking up as much as half of his two-hour set, this Guildford-based husband/father quickly won the hearts of his audience with his convivial, down-to-earth personality. Totally relaxed, he delighted to recount unlikely anecdotes from his personal life, mixing them with such a constant stream of wit and humour that I really felt this guy could earn a living as a full time stand-up comedian. An able mimic - he did a great Elton John impersonation! - he was at his funniest when singing not-so-clever song titles of infamous country and western tunes. And he followed it up by sounding like a natural Nashville country singer on his take of Don William's "You're My Best Friend". It was only in this second half of the show, and even then fairly subtly, that Veira declared his personal Christian faith. It was, it seems, a deliberately low-key evangelistic event; his main purpose in doing these shows, he claimed, was to make people laugh. And laugh we certainly did. It was a delightful, all-round evening's entertainment; my only regret being that the singer included virtually no opera pieces - just a few delightful momentary flourishes when most of us would have loved to have heard so much more. It would be good to hear this outstandingly gifted entertainer bring both the classical and the contemporary repertoires together in what would surely be an even more remarkable show.
RYAN DONN, JULIET TURNER, YVONNE LYON, GENTRY
This little-billed concert in Edinburgh's basement club, Cabaret Voltaire, made an excellent evening's entertainment. The warm-up act was just that - he warmed us up. This was Ryan Donn, who has lived in Canada most of his life, but was born and lived for twelve years in the north-east Scottish port of Fraserburgh. Every so often he lapsed from a Canadian accent into Doric (local Aberdeenshire dialect), which was odd but funny. He was an affecting singer and kept our attention throughout, his songs being a bit more fast-paced than we were expecting from this night out.
The three "stars", Juliet Turner, Yvonne Lyon and Gentry Morris, on the other hand, were exquisite. They played in the round, and each presented six songs, harmonising as the need demanded. Yvonne's husband, worship songwriter David Lyon, worked on keys and accordion and the odd backing vocals. Juliet opened with "Pizza And Wine", which was written by Duke Special. She also offered "Belfast City" - one of her staples - and two or three from her latest album, including "Tuesday Night Ladies", "High Hopes" and the title track, "People Have Faces". Yvonne was also showcasing her new album, 'Ashes And Gold', opening with "Feel The Light", which includes the album title phrase. She also sang "14 Weeks", written about her sister's unborn baby and found on her previous album, 'A Thousand Questions Why', along with a couple of others from the new CD. Yvonne has such a great west coast Scottish accent and when she sings she reminds me so much of that other Glasgow star, Eddi Reader, which is no bad thing.
The surprise of the evening was the unbilled, and for me unknown,
third member of the trio, Gentry Morris. He's a young American hailing
from south Georgia but now living in Bangor, Northern Ireland. He
looks so young he must surely be still at school (or is it just that I
am getting older) and with his longish hair half obscuring a shy
smile, his music was infectious. His gently melodic voice blended
easily with his two accomplished female companions and the songs
flowed from one artist to another and back again. Singing in the round
in this fashion was an interesting spectacle, as we were led to watch
each artist focus on and appreciate the others' music but then reach
eagerly for the mic when it was their turn to perform. The show ended
abruptly at 10pm with no encores, definitely leaving the audience
(this review written by Colin Young of Dalkeith)
I find it sad seeing old churches closing down and their commodious structures turned into office blocks, flats and the like. The function of St Brides Church in the Dalry district of Edinburgh is now a Community Centre, but during each Festival Fringe it takes on the role of the Acoustic Music Cafe, a busy centre for musicians and concerts loosely associated with the folk genre. At 9pm on Thursday 20th August Welsh singer/songwriter Martyn Joseph stepped on stage for a single-date performance. Fast approaching 50, Joseph can look back on a lengthy, eventful career that has seen him issue no less than 35 live and studio recordings (including compilations). In that time he's also built up a committed and faithful following, which could be evidenced in the present concert by the fact that purely on the first few guitar chords' introduction of several songs, many in the sizeable audience began to applaud, showing their familiarity with that piece of music. His repertoire included well known tunes from years past as well as recently penned numbers, such as one or two from his 2008 album 'Evolved'. While some of these were fairly light-hearted in content - such as "In Between Rounds Girl' - eg, the banality of those females that strut round boxing rings depicting the next round on placards - most had a thought-provoking theme, and many drew attention to social or political injustices. Thus, while Joseph expressed joking surprise that, with so many other events on that night, so many had turned out to hear his "miserable set of tunes", he quickly added that several were at least "tinged with hope". The troubadour was at his most relaxed while doing an Elvis impersonation on "Vegas" - dedicated to an 80-year old taxi-driver from Nebraska - and again when he forgot a guitar chord in the chorus of "Sing To My Soul", which momentary relapse he laughed off to good effect. Clearly, Joseph hasn't lost any of his passion, singing with great conviction and energy, and still as busy as ever - his diary for the whole of 2009 being remarkably full of dates. He makes a remarkable one-man-band, and this was an impressive show.
THE URBAN POETS
Destiny is an enterprising, predominately youth-based church based in Glasgow, and an offspring of Covenant Life Ministries, itself a derivative of the Harvestime group of churches. The Edinburgh branch of Destiny is the fastest growing congregation in the city, rising from little more than a handful to a couple of hundred in a remarkably short time. Innovative and original, it was only to be expected that any show they hosted at this year's Festival Fringe would be well worth seeing. Performed by a team of world-class artists from Los Angeles calling themselves The Urban Poets, and performed over five nights in Destiny's former-cinema venue, Scribble was a theatrical show, exploring "the uniqueness of the human contribution to the world through dance, poetry, music and comedy". The hour-long set came in three parts - Break Free, Come Together and Revolution, and it combined a breathtaking set of music, drama, dance and more. The sequencing was perfect, the choreography inventive and artistic and the dance manoeuvres strikingly acrobatic and entertaining. It was a fast-paced, action packed show with bags of variety and quick and clever scene changes. As well as group dance routines, there were a number of solo performances, including breakdance, ballet, tap-dance and rap. All were excellently orchestrated and ably delivered. Throughout, a number of mini-themes contributed to the overriding idea - we have each been created uniquely and given the freedom to be creative; we are to step "beyond the lines"; to use gifts that are already within us, and which others perhaps already recognise; we don't need to fit other people's agendas; we can just "be" - I "am", you "are". Only near the close was God mentioned by name - "He has scribbled us into his plans, for his incomprehensible intentions". Most of the performers, like the majority of those composing the audience, were young - late teens or 20s. Two sketches that proved distinct highlights were the captivating Jesus-Devil conflict, and the hilarious interjections from "Sean", who instead of allowing God to bring out his real talents, preferred instead to do things his way, in a desperate attempt to be a performer. Accompanied by great lighting, backdrops and DJ sequences, this was a truly captivating and original performance, and surely one of the little-noticed highlights of the Festival.
THE EXILE BAND, LINDA HARRISON, GILL PENDER, GUS STIRRAT
The Exile Band was formed in 2003 and consists largely of members of Charlotte Baptist Chapel, one of Edinburgh's largest city centre congregations. They're a highly adept group of musicians who take their art form seriously and who compose their own songs - writers being primarily Mark Calder, Rebecca Hardie and Steph MacLeod, all three of whom are also vocalists in the group. The band - which consists of guitars, keys, drums and vocals - was accompanied on stage by a four-piece choir and by members of the highly proficient Exile Chamber Orchestra. Thus it was a wonderfully full sound that hit our ears, and in a variety of musical styles. For the Exile Band play a diversity of genres that include jazz, soul, Latin, pop/rock and inspirational. The team managed to fuse these music forms together to comprise a delightful hour's worth of listening as the ensemble worked their way through most tracks on their debut studio album, released earlier in 2009. "My God How Great You Are" is an uplifting worship tune with an infectious melody. "Thirteen", based on Psalm of the same number, is a realistic expression of honest doubt and came with fine sax embellishment and a sudden change of tempo as mood changed to one of hope and triumph over uncertainty. "Doxology", also taken from the Psalms, had a country-blues-folk feel and fittingly closed the set.
Meanwhile, as the audience filed downstairs to partake of some refreshment in the commodious Lounge, Edinburgh-based Linda Harrison had preceded us, having just begun her solo repertoire. Accompanied by her own keyboards, this 19 year old with distinctive red-dyed-hair wooed us with an innovative set of self-penned songs. Her original sound is hard to categorise, but her raw, edgy and strikingly versatile vocals grabbed folk's attention before we'd even begun our consumption of coffee and cakes. With the imminent release of both a new single and a support slot for Sandi Thom, and a debut album already near completion, Linda's is definitely a name to watch for.
Acting as support act to Ms Harrison came the more inspirational but equally impressive harmony sounds of Gill Pender and Gus Stirrat, two local musicians who came together just for this venture. This duo ably led us through a smorgasbord of cover tunes, from recent worship songs like "Jesus Has Overcome" to the more classical tones of "Ave Maria". A couple of old hymns similarly went down a treat, notably "It Is Well", but standout performance was their masterful take of Misty Edward's little known classic, "Relentless".The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.