Reviewed by Tom Lennie
The music genre known as Southern gospel is traditionally regarded as old-time gospel hymns and songs with a strong melody, coming in easy listening format and rendered in four part harmony. Over the past 20 years Indiana songwriters and entrepreneurs Bill & Gloria Gaither have broadened the interpretation of this genre to include two and three part harmonies and to encompass musical styles as varied as country, bluegrass, ragtime, pop, black gospel and even classical. In so doing - and particularly through their longstanding Homecoming series, they have succeeded in popularising this music form throughout the world, particularly in European countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Ireland. Undoubtedly, some Homecoming projects work significantly better than others. I'd include among some of the better, indeed quite excellent, ones 'Church In The Wildwoods' (2005), the Israel recordings (also 2005) and the more recent Homecoming Picnic release, with its ambient campfire setting. Thankfully, the latest output in this famed series also fits nicely into such noteworthy category. Filmed in a mammoth tent set up in the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in North Carolina, it seeks to recapture the spirit of the old-time tent revivals of the early to mid 20th century, which were extremely common throughout the States. The set kicks off with a harmonious group vocal rendition of "Yes I Know", a Gaither favourite which features on several previous releases (popular songs often get repeated on later Gaither output). This is followed by a wonderfully lively rendering of "When The Saints Go Marching In", though to a slightly different tune (and including a delightful brass interlude). The Gaither Vocal Band feature next (present line up is Bill Gaither, Mark Lowry, Michael English and Guy Penrod). And so the show rolls on - song after beautiful song - and all masterfully delivered (there's no doubting that Homecoming vocalists truly are top-rate singers). Among the non-Homecoming guests appearing on this venture are The Oak Ridge Boys and The Imperials, while recurring Friends include The Hoppers, The Nelsons, David Phelps, Janet Pashal, Stephen Hill and Jeff & Sherri Easter. Two standout tracks in my opinion are the striking take of the old hymn "Take My Hand Precious Lord", with superb solo gospel vocals from Angela Primm, and The Isaacs' superfluous (as always) rendition of "I Believe In A Hill Called Mount Calvary" - all three of the Isaac siblings have terrific voices and each gets highlighted on this tune. The ministry of Billy Graham features prominently throughout the DVD, and we're also treated to interviews with Cliff Barrows, longtime music and programme director for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and George Beverly Shea, who regularly sang at Graham's crusades (now aged 101 and still quick-witted and in good voice!). A number of short spoken skits also crop up from time to time - inspirational moments beautifully written by Gloria Gaither and read out by various Homecoming artists. So far all very well and good. I do, however, have two quibbles with this product (as with various other Gaither DVDs). The first is that with a couple of tracks featured on the playlist, we only get to see 10 or 20 seconds worth before it's quickly faded out and we're offered a spoken piece instead. I find this really annoying, not least because the few brief moments we do hear sounded pretty good! (Must be pretty annoying for the artists too, to find that their only performances on the venture have been erased, not being considered worthy of full inclusion). The songs in question are "I'm So Glad", which features a further solo from Ms Primm, and "I Need Thee Every Hour", rendered acapella by The Nelsons. My other quibble is the actions of a few of the Homecoming team, who can be constantly seen looking to their far left or right to see if they're appearing on the video monitor, and if they are, immediately playing up to the camera with instant smiles or gestures of enthusiasm. It looks so false and somewhat cheapens the set as a whole. Thankfully most Homecoming Friends have become seasoned performers and act fairly naturally on camera. These defects notwithstanding, this is a truly powerful performance with many fine moments. Running at a full two hours, it makes for both a most entertaining, but also a genuinely worshipful viewing.
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