Founded on Faith| Posted March 04, 2014
Now into their fourth decade, the one constant in the Gaither Vocal Band, besides Mr. Gaither of course, has been change. Recently the band announced new members: Lead, Adam Crabb and Baritone, Todd Suttles. Before Michael English and Mark Lowry departed, however, the all-star lineup (English, Phelps, Hampton, Lowry, and Gaither) recorded one last project, Hymns, as a parting gift. And what a gift! With the album’s sharp focus on the gospel, this version of the GVB could not have ended on a better note.
Hymns is clearly a group effort. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on opening track “Amazing Grace.” Each member gets a chance to shine on a fresh, creative arrangement that breathes new life into this oft over-tread hymn.
In the hands of the GVB, other commonly sung hymns are given legs. The band’s treatment of “The Old Rugged Cross” is fittingly somber but never sleepy. The contrasting light and dark tones by English and Phelps lend the perfect balance between contemplation and celebration. And just when you’re worried the arrangement might become staid, English and Phelps are instrumental in bringing added oomph and energy to “I’ll Fly Away.”
Gaither’s bass provides an especially warm moment on “God Leads Us Along,” but the support from Lowry, and later English, with harmonies from David Phelps, elevates the folksy number to a powerful piece.
Indeed, it’s difficult not to view this project as a swan song of sorts for English and Lowry, at least as far as their participation in the Vocal Band. Lowry’s biggest moment in the spotlight occurs with the Gaither classic, “More of You.” Mark employs his smooth baritone over a beautiful string melody to croon his desire for a fuller relationship with God, while the rest of the band lends beauty to the background.
With his soothing tones, Mark also holds down “‘Til The Storm Passes By,” before Wes Hampton takes a turn, and the group finishes big.
Though his voice can summon a power that mirrors his stature, what makes Michael English unique is the breadth of his vocal palette – he can paint a song with many colors. English’s performances here are exquisite, particularly his aching, nuanced vocals on the repentant “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” Michael’s voice is complemented by a gentle, emotive piano on the breathtaking first verse, and it becomes clear what a challenge it will be to fill his shoes.
On “Love Lifted Me,” another English standout, Michael sings over Hammond organ and blues guitar as his GVB counterparts lend support. The result sounds much like an old black spiritual. No one sings from a point of repentance and heartbreak better than Michael English. His plaintive voice sounds near breaking on “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” while Phelps and Hampton sing perfect counterpoint.
Phelps fans will be ecstatic, and likely want to skip and dance, when they hear their favorite tenor on the lively Celtic-infused take on Fanny Crosby’s “Redeemed.” I’d be hard-pressed to recall a performance of a hymn that better embodies the joyful gratitude of a simple sinner “redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.”
Phelps, Hampton, and English all turn in terrific performances on “My Faith Still Holds.” You’ll not doubt their sincerity as the ensemble together proclaims, “I gladly place my trust in things I cannot see / My faith still holds onto the Christ of Calvary.”
The GVB finishes Hymns by planting us “At The Cross” where, because of Jesus’ pain and sacrifice as “He groaned upon that tree,”“the burden of [our] hearts rolled away.” With superb harmonies throughout, the Gaither Vocal Band faithfully leads us to the feet of Jesus, inspiring us to finish our experience with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
Mark Lowry and Michael English are given ample space to shine on this, their last project with the GVB. This is a near-perfect hymns record, and with the focus squarely on the cross, I can't think of a more fitting close to this special chapter of the Vocal Band.