Tony Cummings reports on Church of England Newspaper "discoveries", America's RAGING GRACE
The reviews by Derek Walker in the weekly Church of England Newspaper are as broadly diverse as the strands of CofE adherents. Each week Mr Walker plucks an item from the media avalanche - both non-Christian and Christian - to bring readers his thoughts on a CD or DVD. He might review Israel Houghton or PFM ("Italy's best known rock band"). He might review the movie re-make of Move Over Darling or a Magic Roundabout DVD. But in the 13th August 2010 issue of the newspaper the eclectically inclined critic surpassed himself by reviewing 'Spitfire' by Raging Grace - a blues rock three-piece from Massachusetts. The fact that at the time of his review Mr Walker probably possessed the only copy of 'Spitfire' in the UK didn't stop the seasoned reviewer from waxing lyrical about how "the pure guitar sound is Mark Knopfler one moment and Wishbone Ash the next" and how "it beats much of what I sing in church and sounds gutsier than many CCM songs."
Back when Walker's rave review was published Cross Rhythms, presumably like all the other CEN readers, had never heard of Raging Grace. But thanks to his review that has now been rectified. Having caught up with the music of these Massachusetts-based blues rockers we took the opportunity to quiz them about their music and ministry.
The band's vocalist and guitarist Stephen Bell spoke about the CEN review. "It came as a complete surprise and was very welcome. It's great to get encouragement when you lest expect it." The band's bass player Dean E Shannon spoke about Raging Grace's early history. "Steve and I had a mutual friend named Rick LaMarre who played electric rhythm guitar. Somewhere around 1990 or so, Rick approached me and said, 'I've got a buddy who plays lead and we're looking to get together and jam a bit. Interested?' I jumped in but with an eye only toward it being a temporary gig. We got a couple more folks on board and were officially a five-piece. After playing in a church basement long enough to learn a handful of songs, we were asked to do a benefit concert for the family of a local teen who was killed in a car crash. For a whole host of reasons, like so many other first gig stories, this almost became our last. After 21 years of grinding and shaping (and a boat load of patience), we've whittled things down to a manageable trio. Less is more, that's our philosophy."
Steve explained how the band finally settled on a permanent drummer. "After a slew of short term drummers, Brian Conway came on board and played with us until '99. Dave came aboard in 2000 and has nearly completed the probation period, 11 years later." Dave Cheney admitted that he'd never even seen Raging Grace before he joined. He remembered, "My first gig was the first time I ever met either one of them. They insisted on getting together first to find out where I was spiritually and personally before we ever played anything. So we got together a couple hours before the gig and spent some time talking. The fact that they put more emphasis on my walk than my playing meant a lot to me, and made the decision to join much easier."
Right from the off there was a strong spiritual vision behind the band. Said Dean, "Our goal as a band, from the very beginning, was to simply tell the story. 'we were once blind but now we see'. That was our reason for starting the band, and is our reason for continuing the band. We've got more people to tell. Though the purpose has remained the same, the locations and manner in which it gets done hasn't. God has taken us on quite a ride over the years. and I have no reason to believe it's not done changing."
Playing whatever gigs came their way Raging Grace made their recording debut in 1994. Said Stephen succinctly, "Our first album was actually 'Up All Night', released in 1994 and finally out of print - to our collective relief."
The band's next album was 1996's 'Worried 'Bout My Brother'. Said Dean rather ruefully, "There was a hidden track on the CD.not our best decision. The engineer on the project tried talking us out of it since it's a very radio-unfriendly thing to do, but we added the sound of footsteps as if we walked out of the studio. a few seconds later (seemingly lasting forever as a listener), there are footsteps coming back in and adding a train-wreck at the end of the song. I'm just glad we got that silly type of thing out of the way early on. I can't help but smile when I hear it. but it's not a good smile."
It wasn't until three years had passed that Raging Grace - by then a three-piece - released another album. Commenting on 1999's 'Bittersweet' Stephen said, "I'm not trained musically, so we brought in one of our musically overeducated friends to help explain occasionally what I'd written. We often heard, 'Well, what you're doing isn't technically correct, but it works - we'll just change the bass part to match.'"
'Bittersweet' contained Steve's all time favourite Raging Grace track, "Live Forever". He said, "Part of my reasons for liking it may just be remembering the evolution of the song in the studio. I say that because before the studio, it wasn't really doing it for me. But the talents of the Blue Jay Studios engineer, Mark Tanzer, turned it into one of our bigger sounding songs. By bigger, I mean there's a lot going on in there. Really wide guitar parts, driving snare and low rumbling bass. The middle bridge was a full band drive down a road we'd never been. I wouldn't want to go there often, but the trip was memorable."
In 2002 the band recorded 'Strand Of Three Chords'. Remembered Dean, "We'd had guest musicians in the past, but we had a lot of fun with this project. We brought in a few talented folks to help add some ear candy. Eric and Robin Lindahl and company added some background vocals throughout the material. In giving them copies of the tracks in advance, they asked if we'd mind trying a horn section for some fun on two songs. 'Married Man Shuffle' and 'Flood Plain'. I'm a bit of a Chicago blues fan but never thought we'd actually have horns on any of our recordings. Eric wrote all the arrangements and went to town. A few weeks later, when it came time to record the parts, in walked the three-piece horn section. Eric was pretty cool about letting us know that if we didn't like it, we didn't have to use it. Anyway, we liked it and we kept it. Besides the horns, we used keyboards and even bagpipes. We're trying to find a use for a renaissance lute, but it's not going so well."
Stephen also had vivid memories of the 'Strand Of Three Chords' sessions. "In order to get the feedback that started the solo on 'Flyin' To The Foot', the producer put me in a small vocal booth with my amp. We added a tube screamer and turned everything up to Disintegrate. It was so loud I could hardly hear the rhythm tracks through the headphones. Worth every ounce of pain." Cross Rhythms reviewer Tom Lennie called the album "the best Christian blues I've heard."
The band's next album was equally memorable. A double, 2007's 'Without Restraint/Grace Live' featured one studio and one live album. Dean recalled the 'Without Restraint' studio sessions. "There's one song in particular, 'Overkill', that has a lot of memories for me for two reasons. One, I've played an instrument most of my life, but I never really studied music theory. I generally know what I want to do but I'm not quite sure how to pull it off. There's a particular bass run in this song that I wanted to add but had no clue how to get it done. Fortunately, the assistant engineer was a bass player and showed me how to do what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I've not been able to do it right since. The second memorable moment for me and 'Overkill' was Renee Henderson! Her powerhouse, soulful vocal parts are killer and make me smile every time; no matter how often I hear the song. The peculiar part is that she is probably the quietest and shyest person I've ever met. Not only did she not look at us while she recorded her parts, but we weren't allowed to look at her! But man...! Can she sing!"
The live part of the package 'Live Grace' is singer/guitarist Steve's favourite Raging Grace album. He enthused, "What you hear is who we is. We recorded three gigs in a row, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. No overdubs. Warts and all."
Dean spoke about Steve's songwriting and his song "Rooted", featured on 2010' 'Spitfire' album. "Steve is the songwriter in this band.no question. Dave and I pride ourselves in ripping his stuff apart and making it.ya know.usable. Steve generally comes in with a loose song structure. Dave and I feel it out a bit, play along, try some things and see what happens. One day, Steve comes in with this one song. Dave and I are playing along for the ride, and Steve breaks off and starts playing a series of riffs completely out of left field. Dave and I stop playing and say. 'What the heck was that?!' Steve says, 'What was what?' After working through the song a bit more, it became evident that the song changed time signatures part way through.and then back again. This in and of itself was not odd, but what WAS odd was that Steve didn't know it when he wrote it. It's happened more than once but 'Rooted' is one of the more popular songs on 'Spitfire'. It's amazing how Steve's songwriting geniusness seems to escape him altogether."
Raging Grace's steamy brand of full frontal rock has contained a strong lacing of the blues in its mix. How do the band respond to the oft-heard assertion that all the best blues singers are black? "The black blues singers of old definitely had the blues about real stuff.real hard stuff," responded Dean. "But when you start peeling it down, the blues is about recognizing that what you're going through ain't the best it can be.and who of us hasn't had the blues? Steve often refers to King David as being the first blues writer. I'm guessing it might have been Adam (before Eve.but maybe after too). It's about knowing that there's something better somewhere else. I think that's not hampered by a colour or any other quality in life. Think about it.as long as you're here and not in the New Jerusalem, there will always be reasons to sing the blues."
Interestingly for such an accomplished bunch of musicians Raging Grace have never had dreams of going full time. Dean has a job in the corporate world, Dave is a cabinet maker and Steve works in construction. All three are completely at peace in serving God as semi-pro musicians. Said Steve, "It's hard to maintain the art in something you have to do for a living. We've not heard any call to full time ministry. Plus, we're from New England and the gig opportunities just aren't there. For now, we've been called to tend to one small corner of the garden and we're good with that."
So the band continue to play, in coffee houses, bars and fests. Said Dean, "Over the years we've learned to be better stewards of our time and opportunities, but these days we're playing more biker events and outdoor festivals in the warmer summer months, while playing the coffeehouse circuit in the colder months. As far as a 'typical' RG fan goes, I like to think it's someone who was able to mine a nugget of hope or even better, a new (or renewed) direction towards a relationship with the Saviour. That person can be anyone.really.anyone (we've seen it). However, I do realize that some folks are just diggin' the music and aren't quite ready to grasp much beyond that. That category appears to be more of the 30-60 something crowd who like guitar-driven rock blues. It can be a difficult juggling act to schedule travel and gigs but we've had to endure worse. This may seem a penetrating glimpse into the highly obvious, but our longevity never would have occurred 15 years ago. It took the first year of growth to get us through the second.and it'll take the first 20 years to get us through the 21st. Basically, it's almost a self perpetuating machine. maturity breeds longevity which spawns maturity which breeds longevity and so forth. Well.that and a huge amount of Divine Intervention."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.