My eyes filled with tears the first time I listened to Sunday Mornin’ Singin’, the remarkable new live Gospel project from Rhonda Vincent and the Rage.
Not a typical reaction for a hard-bitten critic, to be sure, but I blame the music. Good music reaches out and touches you. Great music grabs you and doesn’t let go. And this, friends, is great music.
At first, my eyes moistened a bit because this is the kind of my music my mother listened to and sang until she died a year ago this month. But when Rhonda launched into The Prettiest Flower There halfway through the CD, the tears flowed freely. This song could have been written about my mom, and Rhonda’s emotional vocal and Hunter Berry’s heartbreakingly tender fiddle unlocked a river of grief that I thought was behind me.
By now, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with bluegrass knows that Rhonda is a first-rate performer. But in this live performance, recorded at the Greentop Methodist Church in her hometown of Greentop, Missouri, Rhonda and the band are at their peak. Indeed, to my ear, you could strip out the applause tracks and the banter between songs and release this as a studio project. It’s that tight, even with three- and four-part harmonies and a couple of songs performed a cappella.
I’m pretty sure Prettiest Flower would be among my favorites even it didn’t stir memories of mom. But there are plenty of other great moments here, including Blue Sky Cathedral, with elegant, understated strings; God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds, featuring a dynamic vocal by Berry; four-part a capella harmonies on Becky Buller’s Fishers of Men and the up-tempo Joshua, driven by some hot five-string pickin’ by Aaron McDaris.
For good measure, Rhonda and the band add stirring renditions of two standard hymns, Just as I Am and The Old Rugged Cross.
Rhonda has never been one to shy away from taking chances. She was, for example, among the first in bluegrass to choose to self-record, and now others are following in her footsteps.
But imagine the pressure of recording a live, harmony-rich project – in your hometown, no less. That’s about as high a bar as I can imagine. Rhonda Vincent, Hunter Berry, Mickey Harris, Ben Helson and Aaron McDaris cleared it with ease.
There may be a better Gospel record and a better live project in 2012, but if so – on either count – it hasn’t been released yet.