Monday, April 04, 2005

Thoughts on the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Music

“I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.” – Jack Kerouac

Kate and I attended the Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan this weekend. It was a gathering of musicians, academics, producers, writers, and fans, all discussing music from a Christian standpoint, and it was a whole lot of fun.

The music I heard was beautiful, disturbing, otherworldly, earthy, rooted in tradition, avant-garde, childlike, wise. It was all of the above, and more. The highlights for me were Sufjan Stevens’ lovely and ethereal set Friday evening and Pierce Pettis’s and Bill Mallonee’s folk sets Saturday evening. Two acts – The Danielson Famile and Half Handed Cloud -- plied their Captain-Beefheart-meets-Syd-Barrett-and-Mr.-Rogers-in Sunday-School songs before an appreciative audience. You either like this sort of inspired performance art or you don’t. I don’t. It’s the same hipper-than-thou weirdness that turns me off to a lot of indie rock, as if greatness is found in willful amateurism and atonal shrieking. But I have to say that it is comforting and inspiring to know that there are Christians out there who are, in fact, really, really out there. I like the theory, even if I don’t always like the execution. And with some of this music, execution should have been a viable alternative. It was God honoring and godawful.

There were many, many highlights , and a couple lowlights. Let’s dispense with the bad news first. David Dark, a very bright man, and author of Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, delivered two keynote lectures that were as dense and convoluted as the title of his book. It may be evidence of my feeble mind, but for someone who purports to find meaning in “lowbrow” entertainment, his lectures struck me as heavily academic, surprisingly meandering, and devoid of a point. Or maybe it’s that there were several dozen points, and I was missing the Big Point that was meant to serve as a unifying factor. In short, he had a lot of interesting and good things to say about many things that vaguely had to do with God and culture. Maybe it was an aural collage or something, and I again missed the avant-garde nature of the presentation. The undergraduate take: he used a lot of big words and rambled. Grade: C.

Okay, on to the good stuff. It was great to finally meet Josh and Nick from Paste, after many phone and e-mail conversations. They did a wonderful job of explaining the Paste “worldview” and the guiding principles behind the web site and the magazine. I met Phil Christman and Matt Fink, who write for Paste. It was great to hang out with Bill and Brenda Mallonee. I loved hanging out with Steve Stockman, author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, a warm and gentle Irish bloke with good things to say. I ate dinner across from Pierce Pettis, and told him how much his music has meant to me. And I talked to his 17-year-old daughter Grace, a delightful spitfire, about Charles Darwin of all things, surely the most intense discussion with a 17-year-old I’ve ever had. I talked about music criticism with Sufjan Stevens, and puzzled with him over how to resolve the conundrum of using words to explain what cannot be adequately captured in words. And I met Dan and Amy Fox from Columbus, whose words I have read with interest, but whose faces were unknown until Friday. That was a pleasure. I met many other delightful fans of music -- guys in their thirties in Led Zeppelin cover bands, aspiring musicians who have just moved to NYC, lots and lots of folks with fire in their belliles and a burning desire to ramble on about how rock 'n roll saved their lives, just like me.

I think my workshop on music criticism went well. I enjoyed it. It seemed to flow fairly well. I babbled for a while, showed some slides, and played some music. People asked good questions. And before I knew it, it was over. Then I was inundated with kids wanting to drop off their band’s CD so that I could, you know, maybe listen to it and review it. And kids who were aspiring music critics who wanted to know how to get into the business (my advice: luck out and get on a mailing list with guys who want to start a music magazine). And assorted hangers-on and well wishers who just wanted to talk about music. It was a blast.

I was also struck by how difficult and how lonely this way of life is. We talked with some old friends until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Their marriage is crumbling. It may not survive. And it may not survive because of the damned artistic ego; the ego that is absolutely necessary to sustain an artist in the midst of indifference and apathy; and the ego that is hungry and thirsty for affirmation from others, even when that affirmation comes from a place of brokenness and dysfunction. I understand it. I am not immune to those temptations, and I fully appreciate how easy it would be to head down a path that leads to destruction. I intend no judgment here. But I do hate it. I hate the damage it does to human beings, the pain it causes, the emotional wreckage that results. God have mercy on us, artistic bastards that we are.

And so it was bittersweet; much joy, but also a fair amount of sorrow, wondrously affirming and deeply disturbing. It beat the hell out of sitting around the house watching basketball. It was a holy mess.


Anonymous said...

wow, that was the best mediocre review i've ever read. It was fantastic to meet you and yours, and despite the free meals that drew us away from fellowship, the invitation for a meal stands.

About your review, I think i disagree with you mostly. But unlike last time fanning my Brittany Spears impression from Fahrenheit 9/11, i'm not just trying to stir up trouble by being insincere.

first the music:
danielson. ok. very difficult. i'll give you that. But john ringhoffer has a beautiful thing going on. perhaps it wasn't as apparent in the live performance. his orchestration and song structures are fabulously complex and he even admits to inspiration from early genesis, ala Peter Gabriel.

even though daniel was so hard to listen to, i'm trying to think if i would even be able to sit through an Amy Grant concert or some other gawdawful christian metal band. I'd prefer daniel, and by contrast it illustrates my point (and i think you agree with me here) if there's ever been a time for Christian musicians to be deliberately creative, it's now. we've got a lot of aesthetic ground to make up.

as for david dark. i can can see where you're coming from. i REALLY enjoyed his keynotes, and it was some of the most fuelingly informative speech i've been under in quite a while. yeah, he meandered. . . i forgive him, even though i found it delightfully challenging to keep pace with his thoughts.

as for bill malloney and pierce, i could take it or leave it, and at that point, i would have rather left it. I'm interested here in how the generation gap is informing our musical aesthetics. amy loved those guys. maybe i just remember john mccollum always playing bill's songs for me in his office, maybe i just dont have enough of a "language" for country-folk, i dont know. pierce kind of reminded me of my dad. i thought he was more "cute" than poignant.

i hope i'm not setting tempers ablaze with my opinions here. just thought i'd way in in your space.

mommy zabs said...

I wasn't at this event. But I really do like danielson family in concert. I do know what you mean by the indie comment. But for some reason I don't see them in the same light. I have been around many many indie souls.

As far as bill. I agree this could be generation gap stuff. somehow... I think he is a wonderful guy and he has been an awesome friend to my brother. But I'm not into the country folk thing either. I just don't really get it, but I am glad people are and they enjoy it.

I'm taking it from reading this you write for Paste. That is cool- I will pick it up and look for your writing.

Have you ever written a book?

Ejackson- jeff's sis

Andy Whitman said...

Kids today. Who can understand 'em? :-) Seriously, thanks for your comments.

Dan, so that was you commenting on John McCollum's blog re: "supporting" our government leaders? Ah, the pieces start to fall in place. Sorry if I missed your insincerity. Truly.

It was great to meet you and Amy, and yes, I'd love to get together.

I understand what you (and Elizabeth) are saying re: the Danielson Famile and John Ringhoffer. It's possible that it's a generational thing. Although, in my defense, I will say that I'm not stuck in a "there's been no good music since The Beatles" timewarp. I hear a lot of great new music made by young indie folks, and I genuinely love a lot of it.

I have a thing against weirdness for the sake of weirdness. I'm all in favor of weirdness that has other redeeming qualities, and I certainly agree with you, Dan, that musicians who push the creative envelope are doing a good thing. Yes, that's always welcome in "Christian" music (and music in general). And sure, as much as my ears were pained by Daniel Smith, I'd rather listen to him than Amy Grant or some Christian metal band. I'll take somebody who's trying to be creative, and failing, over the bland leading the bland any day.

I had a difficult time finding the redeeming qualities in the Danielson Famile (less so with Half Handed Cloud; I probably shouldn't have lumped them together). I heard simplistic lyrics that reminded me of Christian variations on Mr. Rogers songs, and painfully amateurish music. I know -- he's going for "childlike" and "full of wonder." But it just didn't work for me. I think it's possible to suggest those qualities, as musicians such as Victoria Williams and Joanna Newsom do, without resorting to shrieking from inside a tree costume. It was way, way over the top for me.

I also realize that this stuff is hopelessly subjective. I know there were many people who were moved by Daniel's music Saturday night. This is just my opinion, and it doesn't bother me if people disagree with it.

I love Bill Mallonee and Pierce Pettis. Yeah, there's an old school folky vibe there that probably resonates more with old folkies (and fogeys) than it does with Gen X or Y or whatever letter we're up to these days. Certainly their music sounds familiar to my ears, as it would to anyone who grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Neil Young. I also think that they have interesting things to say. But they're clearly working within an old, established tradition, and aren't really trying to break new musical ground. I can see where their appeal for me might be linked to my particular musical generation.

But, for what it's worth, I don't really believe in generation gaps. It's one of the reasons why my wife and I are hanging out in a church where the majority of folks are a generation younger than we are. We're just people. We're at different stages of life, and we have struggles and joys and things to share and things to learn, just as everyone else does.

Elizabeth, yes I do write for Paste. Have I ever written a book? Well, do "Creating Graphics for Your Commodore 64" and "BASIC Programming With Your Apple IIc" count? Those are real books, long out of print. You probably wouldn't want to read them. I wouldn't either.

Would I love to write a "real" book that integrates my love for Jesus and rock 'n roll. Sure. Who wouldn't? Do I think I could do it well? Yes. That may sound arrogant, but it's not intended to be. But Yes. And it's something I'd love to do. Want to take me up on it?

John McCollum said...


It may be a generation gap. It may be, however, an age thing. The two aren't necessarily the same.

When I had just graduated from college, I wouldn't touch twang with a ten foot hoe, but over the last five years, I've really gotten into Buddy Miller, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Victoria Williams, Pierce Pettit and other folksy sorts of artists.

Now, Joanna Newsom, that's someone I'm struggling to get into. Not quite hip enough, I'm guessing.

daniel fox said...

i can understand your dislike of weirdness for it's own sake. but, either i don't completely share the sentiment, or i don't see what these guys are doing as that.

I guess my interpretation of it is, these are sincere expressions aesthetically, that come from a place inside these individuals that had to be coerced to come out.

there was a time in my musical experimentation that things were genuinely coming out of my heart toward God in a very similar way daniel smith is expressing himself. and that was done, all by myself, for fear of embarrassment .

i've also had times when the cry of my heart has sounded like more like pierce. that's most of the time anymore.

so i dont get the sense that it's a shock value thing, or a "i'm so cool" thing. (and after being in his workshop i suspect this even more) at his core this is an expression that totally fits who daniel smith is. and i think the same can be said about a lot of successful musicians. It seems like there is something that transcends style, and that is authentic expression. and that, i'm sure pierce and bill and daniel and sufjan could all sit and drink to.

BTW, you should try to take a listen to half handed could, recorded. it's a pretty different experience.

John McCollum said...


Was there really a tree costume?


Andy Whitman said...

John, yes, there really was a tree costume. It's part of Daniel Smith's schtick (or perhaps stick might be more apropos here). There's a hole in the branches for Daniel's head, and two holes in the side of the bark where Daniel can extend his hands and "play" the guitar.

And so visually and sonically you end up with a sort of shrieking apple tree. I may have the details wrong. But it was certainly fruity.

danthress said...

Thank you Andy and Daniel for your comments on the festival. I wish I could comment, but I wasn't there. But I will respond to some of these interesting blog comments.

Range is the new age. Andy, you have tremendous range, anyone who makes a MixCD that starts with the Drive-By Truckers and ends with Sigur Ros is on the right track. You are alive and well my friend.

Age is meaningless. Joanna Newsome is 21 and grew up listening to obscure folk-singers of the 50s. Our church is made up of 20/30 somethings who love an Irish band who in their 40s. It's a holy mess indeed. Age has nothing to do with faith so why should it with music, a much lesser topic.

Daniel, I've played music in Columbus with some folks who consider themselves more idea-oriented than musicians. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it was awful. It worked better at the house than it did down at MadLab. I appreciate anyone who improvises though, because at it's best it involves trust in the Spirit. Again, I wasn't there.

Music writer Chip Stern loves to say "That's why they make menus" whenever people don't agree. He's right. Annie think's salmon is stricly for cats. That's ok, that's why we'll have menus at the house.

For what it's worth, no one asked for it, but here's me 2-cents.

1. I like people who play for God's sake. I try always to play for Him, even if I'm just teaching a lesson or practicing.

2. See Matt Redman's "The Heart of Worship Files" The chapter by Les Moir, titled: "Skill and Sensitivity."
This guy puts into words everything that I felt but couldn't communicate. He starts out with Psalm 33 and goes from there.

3. John Coltrane, "I think that the majority of musicians are interested in truth. They've got to be, because saying a musical thing is a truth. If you play a musical statement and if it's a valid statement, that's a truth right there in itself, you know. If you play something phony, well, you know that's something phony [laughs]. All musicians are striving for as near certain perfection they can get, and that's truth there, you know. So, in order to play those kinds of things, to play truths, you've got to live as much truth as you possibly can...and if a guy is religious and if he's searching for good and he wants to live a good life--[he] might call himself religious or he might not."

Coltrane came out with his faith in a very public way with A Love Supreme in 1965. I think about this a lot. It doesn't sound like anything we hear in a church, but it is worship. A big door opener for a lot of people.

Andy, I'm leaving out a comment about your most interesting paragraph because I won't get anything else done the rest of the day if I start thinking about it!

mommy zabs said...


thanks so much for your comments back.
My thing with danielson is that they have been doing this weird thing of theirs for awhile. It isn't some new phase of thiers' they are trying. I see no one they are trying to copy. I don't necc. get them, but I appreciate that they have their own bizarre thing going on. I really enjoy that. I come from seeing so much of the same thing over and over and over in the Christian industry. So I guess in a way the bizarre nature of them is... refreshing.

Generation gap- proabably a bad title. I think yes... there are similiarities of which you speak that span generations. But there are differnces that may be more shallow through the generations. And they may not be "all accross the board". The world I grew up in looked very different then the world my parents grew up in. For Example- My Grandparents still think the word "nigger" is okay. Me and my peers, "GASP!"

There are always exceptions. My grandpa is one of the biggest Post-Modernists I know... but his generation is largely Modern. I have peers that don't seem nearly as effected by Post-modernism somehow. Which blows me away because it was the foundatino of a good deal of our learning. Even if we didn't want it to become part of us, it has.

Book deal. You should write a proposal... I will pass it on if you would like me to! It sounds like you have many interesting experiences and thoughts. And I know that you seem to really have a heart to contribute to this generation that RELEVANT hits.
Jeff speaks very highly of you.

Speaking of Jeff. He is an example of weirdness that may not make sense to some people.... but the rest of us love :)