Music

Punch Brothers: God-Honoring Musicianship

Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records / Taylor Crothers
Punch Brothers stopped by Washington, D.C. Feb. 8. Photo courtesy of Nonesuch Records / Taylor Crothers

People often say the mark of a true “master of a craft” is one who makes something ridiculously difficult look easy. Chris Thile, former member of Nickel Creek and front man for folk group Punch Brothers, is one of those people. As my buddy standing next to me at last night’s Punch Brothers show in Washington, D.C. said, “It’s like he’s an extension of the mandolin. He can do anything he wants with that thing.” I mean, the guy can almost flawlessly whoop out some Bach on the mandolin.

While musicianship is certainly present on their recorded material, the talent of each member of the five-piece band is fully realized during their live shows, which are more like jam sessions. With the encore, they ended up playing for almost two hours to a sold out crowd at the 9:30 Club.

It almost got to the point where I didn’t believe they were real. They almost seemed like robots.

Walk the Moon: A Fun Pick-Me-Up

Neon Tommy / Flickr
Walk the Moon performed on Thursday in Washington, D.C. Neon Tommy / Flickr

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, look no further than Cincinatti’s Walk the Moon. The group recently stopped in Washington, D.C., on their world tour and performed in front of an uber-hyped audience.

Their songs blend elements of pop, rock, and dance music — like what you’d expect if you mixed The Strokes, Passion Pit, and sprinkled on some of the overall vibes from the Vans Warped Tour.

Art As An Act of Faith

Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com
Photo illustration, © Elena Ray / Shutterstock.com

Almost two years ago, I took a titanic risk. If you look at things from an earthbound perspective, what I did is: I took my livelihood, and my children's provision, in my hands alone. I quit my job at The News & Observer, a major, Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper where I earned a decent salary and reached 150,000 to 200,000 readers on any given day. 

The decision was a long time coming — my whole adult life, really. Before I ever started my first newspaper job in 2000, I’d wanted to help people explore deeper things than just tax policy, or crime, or environmental regulation. These just skim the surface of who we are as humans: why we share or hoard, why we hurt or protect one another, what we owe to Mother Earth.

What I found as a newspaper reporter was that I had no choice but to skim the surface of things. There’s not enough space to go deeper, but, more importantly, deeper takes you into hypothesis, not fact — and hypothesis is a leap of faith. What you find when you go deeper depends a lot on the gear you’re wearing when you dive. I’m cloaked in Bible stories and Christian tradition, and therefore I live in hope that there’s a Creator and that this God is working quietly to heal the world.

I read recently in Psalm 27: 

“The Lord is my light and my salvation —
 whom shall I fear?
 The Lord is the stronghold of my life —
of whom shall I be afraid?”

People Get Ready

IT WAS THE first week of November 2012, and Bruce Springsteen was busy helping nail down a few swing states for President Obama. In the process, he expressed more enthusiasm than I could ever muster for the man who put Tim "The Fox" Geithner in charge of our financial hen house. But political quibbles aside, I remain convinced that what Springsteen actually does for a living is more important to the life of our country than the work of any living politician, and I saw living proof that very same week.

On the Saturday night before Election Day, Springsteen and his E Street Band dropped into Louisville, Ky. Of course, my wife, Polly, and I had to go, and we had to take our 12-year-old son, Joseph, who has become the fourth Springsteen-obsessed member of our family. It was my fifth time to see the show, and ever since I've been thinking of the poem in which Allen Ginsberg asked America, "When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?" Paraphrasing Ginsberg, I ask today, "America, when will you be worthy of your E Street Band?"

To me, going to see the E Street Band has become something like going to see a natural wonder, like Yellowstone or Mammoth Cave or, more to the point, the California redwood forests: Like the redwoods, it's growing older. The bark gets rougher by the decade, and some branches break off and fall to the earth. But Springsteen's great tree of American music is still growing in stature and substance. The band has become a cultural institution that spans races, genders, and generations and fittingly represents the sacred American musical tradition that has grown from the work songs, ring shouts, and spirituals of the slaves.

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Sleeper Awake!

IN THE TITLE song of Aimee Wilson's new album, Unto Us the Sun, the music begins soft and gentle, like a slight shaft of light breaking over the morning horizon. Gradually the song intensifies, both instrumentally and vocally, until it reaches an almost ecstatic crescendo—a musical embodiment of the process she lyrically portrays of the subtleties of nature opening up its unspeakable beauty, a grand chorus of creation praising its Creator. It is also hardly incidental that the song evokes biblical language of resurrection, while both the title and images such as "tender as the shoot" subtly hint at the presence of Christ—not a heavy-handed doctrinal Christ, but the saving incarnation of a loving God.

Wilson is part of a remarkable network of young, spiritually rooted musicians (such as the Psalters) who are fashioning a very new and dynamic musical language of radical faith—a faith that is searching, exploring the edges of experience, probing human hurts and joys as well as divine mysteries and manifestations. Wilson's personal journey has taken her from the hills of her native Tennessee to inner-city Philadelphia. Her songs cover a range of moods, many reflecting her mystical apprehension of God's presence in creation. Other songs, drawing on her experience working with women who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness, convey the power of grace amid human brokenness.

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Finding God in Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell?

Perry Ferrel singing with Jane's Addiction in 2012. Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.c
Perry Ferrel singing with Jane's Addiction in 2012. Mat Hayward / Shutterstock.com

I know this sounds totally bizarre, but I had a moment of clarity about the value of human life in, of all places, a kid-themed pizza joint yesterday. No, they don’t exploit their workers (that I know of, short of submitting them to overstimulated kids all day). It took a few steps for me to get there, so bear with me.

Yesterday, my daughter, Zoe, turned four years old. It’s a crappy time of year to have a birthday party, since lots of people are out of town, and those who are around are more or less partied out from the holidays. On top of that, we just moved here a few months ago and hardly know anyone. So to try and make up for all of that, we let her pick anywhere she wanted to go for dinner.

Not surprisingly, she picked John’s Incredible Pizza Company, which is like Chuck E. Cheese on steroids. Not high on my list of choices, but hey, it wasn’t my birthday. Zoe’s grandparents are in town and they invited a couple other family members who live nearby to join us. One of Amy’s distant cousins brought along her husband or boyfriend (still not sure which), and I remarked after the dinner to amy that he bore a striking resemblance to the alt-rock front man Perry Ferrell, of Jane’s Addiction fame.

“What ever happened to Perry?” Amy asked. Short of founding the Lollapalooza Festival and hitting every Coachella festival ever held, I had nothing. So I Googled him.

The Sacred Ran Through Jazz Legend Dave Brubeck’s Music

Dave Brubeck, 1972, by Heinrich Klaffs
Dave Brubeck, 1972, by Heinrich Klaffs

"I approached the composition as a prayer," jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck said of his "To Hope! A Celebration," a contemporary setting for the Roman Catholic Mass, "concentrating upon the phrases, trying to probe beneath the surface, hoping to translate into music the powerful words which have grown through the centuries."

Probing beneath the surface marked all of Brubeck’s music, from the revolutionary 1959 polyrhythmic album "Time Out," to his oratorio, "A Light in the Wilderness," and his setting of Thomas Aquinas’ hymn, "Pange Lingua."

Brubeck died on Wednesday of heart failure, a day before his 92nd birthday.

Brubeck is best known in the secular jazz world for his startling compositions using different time signatures, such as 5/4 time in the classic "Take Five," or the mixture of 9/8 time and the more traditional 4/4 rhythm of "Blue Rondo a la Turk." Both pieces are on the "Time Out" album, the first jazz album to sell 1 million copies and still one of the best-selling.

Religious faith, however, was never far from Brubeck’s creative mind.

Folk Artist Noah Gundersen Talks with Sojourners

Up-and coming-/singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen stopped by the Sojourners office to talk with our Brandon Hook about music, his new album Family, God, and creativity.

The Seattle-based folk artist was recently featured on Spotify’s Emerge app, which pits rising artists against each other based on play frequency, and is currently on a U.S. tour.

Special thanks to Noah for stopping by and being so open with us!

New & Noteworthy

A VITAL WORD
In I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores in detail 25 poems as "witnesses" to Dickinson's wrestling with God. LeMay elegantly combines accessible literary analysis with her own spiritual memoir of search, doubt, and faith. Paraclete Press

BLESSED ASSURANCE
South African native Jonathan Butler has earned praise in the R&B, contemporary jazz, and gospel music fields. His latest album, Grace and Mercy, offers gentle songs that proclaim faith and hope in the midst of troubled times. Rendezvous Music

NO EASY FREEDOM
Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf explore the continuing legacy of American slavery in Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. In alternating narratives they reflect on three years of travel, historical research, and mutual vulnerability. Beacon Press

ALIVE AND KICKING
We Are Not Ghosts, a film by Mark Dworkin and Melissa Young, is an inspiring, but not sugar-coated, portrait of how some people in Detroit are recreating life and community there in the wake of industrial collapse and suburban flight. Bullfrog Films

 

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