When I imagine the “musician-storyteller”, my mind goes straight to Bruce Springsteen. The 5 vinyl records in my brother’s Live 1975-1985 box set made me feel every bit the rebellious teenager growing up on the streets of Jersey that I was decidedly not. Story has the power to transport, and even transform, and I believe the connection between story and song is literally supernatural. That’s why a gifted musical storyteller who understands that we are all part of a much bigger Story is such a treasure. And why the ten-city “Storytellers” tour, pairing Jason Gray and Andrew Peterson, is doubly valuable.
Peterson and Gray are label-mates on Centricity, and I assumed this tour was the label’s idea. It speaks to the admiration the two artists have for each other that it was actually their idea. I don’t doubt the label was thrilled. I caught the tour stop at a large church in a small town in the north Georgia mountains. A gentle snow fell throughout the evening, befitting the cozy mood among the full house.
The dual headliners took the stage with an announcement that, because it did not seem fair to select one or the other’s song to open the show, they would perform a cover together. And who better to cover than Rich Mullins? (I say that as a universal truth.) During “Calling out Your Name” I realized how surprisingly complimentary were Peterson’s and Gray’s vocals and guitar playing.
Next, the pair completed their new nightly tradition to decide the order of the solo sets: rock-paper-scissors.
The battle was intense, but through multiple rounds Peterson prevailed. Two 4-song solo sets followed – first Gray, then Peterson – with an effective mix of spoken backstory and musical front-story (I think I just invented that word). In general, the song introductions were not lengthy. In fact, the longest story in the solo part of the show was probably the most familiar to the audience, when Peterson introduced “Holy is the Lord”, a song based on Abraham’s journey to sacrifice Isaac. But that familiarity might be why the story was so effective in setting up the song, as he caused the audience to imagine the story in a more visceral way. Michael Card is a proponent of “Biblical imagination”, and, like Card, these artists are particularly effective at drawing a listener into a scene to enhance the experience and the message.
Following intermission, the pair was again joined by their excellent rhythm section: Spencer Ford on percussion and Matt Pierson (who played with Rich Mullins and was named an “Honorary Muffin”) on upright bass.
For his part, Peterson was frequently seen on piano, which is unusual given that he usually hands the keys over to the brilliant Ben Shive. But Peterson is certainly no slouch, and one of the advantages of playing at a church is the availability of a grand piano. The acoustics were excellent, and the band could convey moods through a range of sounds from dulcet to dramatic.
There was an ease and almost natural order to the ping-pong set list which alternated between the artists’ songs. Thrice was this statement uttered: “This is the same song, but different,” highlighting thematic overlaps in each repertoire that gave fresh perspectives. The set was long, but the pace stayed peppy primarily because the artists made an important choice. Between them, they could have easily filled a 20-song set with story-songs, and they could have introduced each one like The Boss did with his six-minute introduction to “The River”. But audiences can reach a saturation point where each story conveys less meaning. Gray and Peterson were disciplined, mixing the story-songs with radio hits and simpler songs of praise. Consequently, the stories stood out. Two songs with nearly identical titles but totally different subjects were highlights. Gray’s “I Will Find a Way” and Peterson’s “You’ll Find your Way” are exemplars of all that is good about Christian music, and hearing them back to back on a single stage is a moment I won’t soon forget.
The Sound Opinion named Jason Gray’s A Way to See in the Dark our top album of 2011, and had we made a list for 2012, I would have nominated Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy. These two are on a brilliant songwriting run, and it’s fitting that they are friends who so admire each other’s work. The warmth of that camaraderie reached a high point as the evening closed with hundreds of voices singing with solemn reverence a blend of choruses from each artist. “I believe He is the Christ, Son of the living God” blended seamlessly in to “Thank You, thank You, Jesus we are grateful. Thank You, oh thank You, Jesus we are Yours.” Funny how those simple declarations emerged from a night of story and celebration, reminding us all of our place in Story and our gratitude to its Author.
Together: Calling Out Your Name (Rich Mullins)
More Like Falling in Love (from Everything Sad is Coming Untrue)
Help Me, Thank You (from Everything Sad is Coming Untrue)
Nothing is Wasted (from A Way to See in the Dark)
Jesus, We are Grateful (from A Way to See in the Dark)
Invisible God (from Resurrection Letters, Vol. II)
Holy is the Lord (from City on a Hill: The Gathering)
World Traveler (from Counting Stars)
Carry the Fire (from Light for the Lost Boy)
Good to be Alive (from A Way to See in the Dark)
Dancing in the Minefields (from Counting Stars)
Fear is Easy, Love is Hard (from A Way to See in the Dark)
Rest Easy (from Light for the Lost Boy)
I Will Find a Way (from A Way to See in the Dark)
You’ll Find Your Way (from Light for the Lost Boy)
The Sound of our Breathing (from A Way to See in the Dark)
The Reckoning (How Long) (from Counting Stars)
Remind Me Who I Am (from A Way to See in the Dark)
The Good Confession (from Resurrection Letters, Vol. II)
Chorus: Jesus, We are Grateful
[All photos (c) 2013 Mark Geil. Stay tuned for our interview from the concert.]