Album Review :
Josh Garrels Concert Ft. Loud Harp and A Boy & His Kite
Last year, Josh Garrels released his documentary The Sea Inbetween, filmed on the beautiful Mayne Island, British Colombia. He had a concert in Vancouver, and I was beyond ecstatic for it, but by the time a friend and I went online to buy tickets, it was sold out. So when I heard about this concert, we bought tickets the first day they were available.
We begin to approach the venue at 7:15, figuring there’s plenty of time to spare for an 8:00 concert. My heart sinks a little as I see the line from across the street; it winds from the front doors of the church all the way down a block – but no line no matter how long could have truly dampened my spirits. I would have been satisfied to be standing near the back just to hear him sing. We hurry to take our place at the back of the line before it gets any longer, marveling at the side of the St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church. It’s a beautiful venue, one of those massive, old school churches built with stone and decorated with gothic touches and stained glass windows.
The line slowly shuffles inside, and we’re struck by a beautiful sanctuary – wooden pews fill the space, row upon row, and chain suspended lanterns provide a warm orange glow to the crowds of people already seated. My friends and I manage to grab the first row on the side of the stage, perfectly situated for both view and acoustics, even if we are squished side to side with nary an inch to spare, and we begin to wait.
The opening act is A Boy & His Kite – an act I admit I knew nothing coming into the concert except that one of their songs was featured in the last Twilight movie (they always have exquisite taste in soundtrack artists). The audience is quiet as Dave Wilton and his band mates take their place on stage. Dave is on vocals and electric guitar, and the two other members take up the drums and cello. The first song is “The Heist,” which creates a great atmosphere, but the instruments all but overpower the soft vocals. Their sound creates an ethereal atmosphere – a haunting mix of Future of Forestry, Sleeping At Last, and The Gloomcatcher. The sound quality is fixed for the second one, as they transition into “Heartache is a Cold Place.” It’s an absolutely beautiful song, but as the audience was bathed in a golden glow and the band backlit by a cold blue, the cello and guitar reverberate throughout the church and these lyrics stood out to me as particularly poignant:
“Faith, man it’s more than just my words
It bends my soul to turn
Hope it’s more than just my pleas
It’s a light I choose to see.”
The audience is silent throughout, as the song muffles any response until the applause at the end. The next track is introduced as “Cover Your Tracks.” It’s in the same vein as the others – an excellently executed ambient sound. The only problem is that the ponderous nature of the music seems to inhibit the audience from becoming too enthusiastic and involved.
Dave announces that A Boy & His Kite are done, but there’s a moment of confusion as none of the band leave, and one more musician, Asher Seevinck, jumps up – Loud Harp is now on stage. That’s all the transition is, one new singer/guitarist and the cellist takes up a bass. Asher explains that the setlist is based on the Psalms, they’re “repetitive,” he warns, “but purposely repetitive prayers.” The first song, “Hold Me Together,” certainly rings true to this – about every other line is, you guessed it, a variation on “hold me together.”
I’ve been a moderate fan of Loud Harp’s music before, but my attitude has been much the same as IVM’s Carter Fraser in his review where he says: “It’s nothing you probably haven’t heard before, but it’s a solid release for quiet moments of solitude and reflection.” But live, these moments of solitude and reflection are amplified. I look over the audience and see various people closing their eyes and bowing their heads in contemplative prayer: the lines between a concert and a night of worship are being blurred. Then they move right into “Hide Me Away,” a simple song of three lines, with a powerful building up – the ambience of the band is palpable, but the song ends abruptly, it felt like it was cut short before the crescendo. But I don’t really care; the atmosphere isn’t affected by it. “Your Love Never Runs Out” kills as the next song – what struck me was the percussion – it’s never a garish drum solo or showcasing his talents, but his passion is driving the song forward, and Asher is practically screaming praise, his whole body uncontrollably moving to the music.
Then we get a song from the upcoming album, their best one yet, “You Heard Me.” The drums are crisp and the same soft, warm guitar merge with a subtle cello, and the song moves from virtually a cappella to a full bodied post rock sound. It transitions seamlessly into their final song, “You Found Me.” Some of the lyrics which resonated for me here were “ I have been wondering for years…searching for a real love…You found me and brought me home.”
Police sirens fade in and out, reminding us that though we are within a church at a time of peace and rest, the world continues to struggle. We may feel safe and secure in the atmosphere created here, but we are not apart from it, nor immune to it. It’s our job to spread out the joy and comfort to those who need it more.
There’s a short break before the man of the hour comes out for the second half of the show. I head outside for a respite from the mass of people and to get some fresh air. People mull around, visiting with each other – virtually everyone knows someone else in the crowd, everyone united into community through the music of Josh Garrels. It also occurs to me that if someone wanted to set a trap for almost every Christian hipster in Vancouver, this would be the place to do it.
But the audience is made up of more than just 18-25 year olds – there are whole families with young kids, older couples with canes and walkers, and everyone in between. It’s like going to an actual church service, there may be one generation that’s better represented, but the age is sprawled across the board.
I emerge from my walk outside to the sound of thunderous applause. Darting back to my seat, I get there just in time for Josh to finish getting set up. He’s playing along with the guys from Loud Harp backing him up, allowing a full bodied presence to his music. He dives straight into “Beyond the Blue,” and at the first note the audience is ecstatic – they enjoyed the other acts, but every single person there came for this moment. Josh doesn’t engage in much banter with the audience; it may be that he’s tired, or he’s just trying to pack in as much music as possible.
I smile with anticipation as he begins to play “Ulysses,” – the emotion drips from his voice and the moment is sublime as the lights throughout the church dim over his melancholy falsetto. People begin to crowd the aisles between the pews and others creep up to sit in front of the stage as he transitions seamlessly into “Slip Away.” If you close your eyes, the quality is like a recording, except more vivid – you can feel the music pumping through your veins, and his voice has a deeper growl in it. He commands the attention of at least a thousand people simply with his voice. No flashing lights or extreme stage personality. All he needs to do is sing “Please forgive me, before we reach the end,” and there’s nary another sound to be heard.
He takes a short break to wipe the sweat from his bow and swig some water as his backing band mates take leave of the stage, leaving Josh by himself. He takes out his charango, which he describes as a South American ukulele/mandolin with nylon strings, and gets ready to dive into “Words Remain.” Of course, no set can go perfectly and right as he begins to play, exceptionally loud feedback echoes through the building, and he has to stop and start a couple times before it finally stops. “I might be bleeding from my ear” he remarks, half joking and half serious. The audience nervously giggles at every squeal from the equipment, but as soon as Josh starts singing – silence. The song is exquisite, and I don’t know if I have the words to explain this moment, but it may have been one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard. His voice throughout is simply sublime, it’s incredibly intimate but full of power as well, and his lyrics ring of truth:
I will try to stay awake
Take my last breath of faith
As I wait for you to come
Take me beyond
This land undone
Over the flood
It has an ethereal quality to it, and it’s almost as if we’ve glimpsed behind the curtain of another world, caught up in a magical, wondrous moment as time stands still. We’re all spellbound, and I feel as if my heart is so full of yearning it may burst. As the echoes of the last notes dissipate into the air above, I cannot help but feel as though something beautiful has left the room.
He follows it up with “Train Song.” I get the sense that most of the audience isn’t as familiar with this old classic, they are more familiar with his songs from Love & War & the Sea In Between. But they don’t care; they love every minute of it. One older woman is raising her hands in prayer – this is what Josh Garrels’ music is all about.
It seems as though the audience gets exponentially louder with every song. Where they were modestly enthusiastic in showing their appreciation for the opening acts, there’s no shutting them up every time he finishes a song.
“Break Bread” is his next, his first of two songs about Communion. Accompanied by no more than his laptop and acoustic guitar, it’s hard not to see why Josh Garrels has the effect he does when you hear his songs. He takes a short break before the next song, “Jacaranda Tree.” He gives a brief history of the song, his wife wrote the lyrics as part of a poem about her leaving her home of Peru to come to Indiana to marry him; “I’ll be a Jacaranda Tree In Indiana”.
He explains the underlying meaning: “we live here, but not always rooted, a sense of transience, but only one another are permanent.” Community binds us together, our roots are not in this world, but with each other, and ultimately in Christ.
As he finishes, the rest of the band begins to wander back on stage behind him. Josh cranes his head behind his neck in surprise.
“Sorry guys, I switched the setlist on you.” He’s still got some solo songs to play before he needs the full band.
The guys shrug nonchalantly and sit down on stage to enjoy the show. Josh then begins to explain why these particular bands were backing him up: Dave Wilton used to be primarily a sound engineer, and actually mixed Josh Garrels’ acclaimed album Love & War & The Sea In Between before making his own music with A Boy & His Kite and Loud Harp. After this brief expose on their friendship, he figures “let’s transition the set back again,” deciding to make use of the band mates on stage.
They roll into “Don’t Wait For Me,” one of my favourites off of his album Jacaranda Tree. The prodigal allusions make it a moving piece;
When I was young I dreamed
Of a life that had freedom that had joy
Oh life it crushed my soul
With its cruel demands and fool’s gold
They go straight into “Flood Waters,” and it’s a joy to see a smile creep upon his often serious face as he breaks into the chorus – you can tell that it’s more than just playing music, this is his vocation.
But just wait, because he definitely saved the best for last. An organ-like sound wafts through the air from the keyboard, and a smile breaks across my face from ear to ear: it’s “Farther Along.”
This is the song that everyone has been waiting for. Almost every head is bobbing to the music, and as I look out upon the crowd I can see their mouths moving in unison, singing along to every word, and there is just the faintest of echoes from their singing in the backdrop of Josh. They begin to clap along, not enough to overpower, just enough to augment the experience. And he doesn’t change up the tune much from the album; a longer note here, and a shorter rest there, just enough to mark it as a song played live.
The audience bursts into applause like the first roll of thunder in a storm. It feels like the concert is just getting started, but unfortunately, Josh announces that the next song, “Bread and Wine” will be his last.
He gives a long explanation about the song:
“It took me years to write it, it almost went on two previous albums, but the lyrics weren’t quite right, I hadn’t learned my lesson – we all need each other.”
He’s obviously passionate about this, and it’s the longest bout of talking he’s done to the audience so far.
“So often we show our status, the best face we have to other people, especially now with social media. I’m tempted to take of picture of the audience right now and share it on Facebook to show off how many fans I have. But to be fully human is to love each other in the midst of our inadequacies. I’m convinced there are thresholds we cannot surmount on our own. God has put barriers and mountains in our life to force us to link arms.”
He references Scripture (doesn’t specifiy, but it draws on themes found in John 16, Romans 8, and 1 Peter), saying that “we share in our sufferings in order to share in a greater joy.”
The song carries with it heartache for community, a yearning so strong that it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed as he sings it. The first lyrics resonate throughout the entire duration: “I was wrong, everybody needs someone.” I can see and hear crying in the audience, and if I’m being honest, I feel tears welling up in my eyes too.
He finishes and humbly stands up, sheepishly smiling and saying a big “thank you” to the audience before walking off stage. Everyone leaps to their feet, cheering and applauding, until finally he comes back out, hits a button on his laptop, and grabs the mic off the stand. He dives into “Resistance.” He’s backlit by a red light, adding an off kilter feel to it as his lyrics flow and he throws out convicting words to the audience:
Let every man be considered a liar
If he doubts the goodness and faithfulness of God
Itching ears will compulsively nod in approval
When unbelief is taught in all our temples and schools
But God can restrain the madness of a fool
He can bring His truth through the mouth of a mule
You can move a mountain without any tools
He’s giving it his all, and I can sense how much he believes in the message he’s sharing. He then picks up his guitar, promises that this really is the last song, and asks everyone to sing along to “Going Home,” a song way back from his 2002 album Stone Tree. It’s a simply melody, and he ends it off with “Alleluia, Amen.” It’s truly music for the soul.
It’s as if the entire concert was a time of corporate prayer. Amen indeed.