Thursday, October 29, 2009

We're Getting the Band Back Together

I found two bands this year that I absolutely love: Superdrag and Wilco. I'll sidestep the latter in this post: you've heard enough from me regarding them. I'll only say about Superdrag that they should be as well known as Foo Fighters, and that John Davis' second solo (and straight up Jesus) record is the among the best (read: THEE best) records ever put out by someone who loves Jesus. For real, dude. John's not always been in the faith, but a lot of the pre-Jesus Superdrag records reflect that struggle.

Superdrag had one big hit in the mid 90's, the post-grunge anti industry slice of pop called "Sucked Out". I dismissed them, and that album, Regretfully Yours, as some hipster/Beatles wanna be. After that, I didn't have to worry about it. I didn't really hear from them again. Flash forward to 2007, when some of my internet friends (also big music fans and Christians) are raving about John's solo record. I heard it and I was hooked.

During their decline, they had line-up changes, and then they were put on hiatus, which is what bands say when they're breaking up, but don't want to say it. The original line-up then regrouped in 2008. John had said what the Blues Brothers said many years ago: "we're getting the band back together".

I'm thinking that this phrase is kind of like saying "I'm having a mid-life crisis" or "I'm out of royalty money" or some other idea that is spurring you on to revisit something that was successful. Of course, the only correct reason to get the band back together is to create more good art.

Oh man, are Christians really bad about getting the band back together.

Not that they are assembling actual bands and going on reunion tours, but they are really bad (meaning they do it a lot) about dwelling on past glories and behaviors. Being a music guy, I've heard it all: "We used to do _________. Why don't we do ________ any more?" Or: "Back in '52 we did _________, and it was really successful. We should do it again in the exact same way."

But, when the goal is to replicate something that happened before, you've missed the point. With the Gospel, as well as music, your goal is to communicate. And, to do that, you have to communicate what you want to say in a relevant way, which will mean that you'll have to explain the Gospel in a fresh way. You'll have to write new songs, not just put out another greatest hits package and go on tour (I'm looking at you, Styx and Poison). In the words of Jesus, you'll have to reclaim your first love.

Music geeks love Bob Dylan, but regular folk can't figure out why he's still recording and touring. Well, it's because he's the opposite of those artists just cashing in, the opposite of those church people who are living in the past. Of course, he never had to get the band back together. He's been on the never ending tour since the 80's.

I have a personal interest in the idea of "getting the band back together": I want to do it. I still write songs all the time, and I want to play them in a band. I'm a little too old to want to do that, I suppose, but it's not about being young, but having something to express. I also want that for churches, including the church I'm at now, and the churches I've worked at in the past. I want them to regroup (if they need to), and do what bands who reunite should do, which is to get back to why you exist in the first place, and let what you do emanate from that raison d'etre. Jesus addresses this with the church at Ephesus:

"Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place." (Revelation 2:4-5)

I don't have a problem with reunion tours, as long as the artists have something new to say. Then again, I'm the guy that wants the band to play songs off of its new record.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Well Known Pastors and The Stuff They Say and Do

Being either an early or late adapter (never adapting when most people do it), I'm either usually really early or late to trends and pop culture, and even popular church culture. For example, I was early on Rob Bell (thanks to my wife finding "Velvet Elvis" in a Barnes & Noble), and late to Shane Claiborne. So late on Shane, in fact, that I'm just now reading "The Irresistible Revolution". I didn't even buy the book. I found it laying around the church.

A couple of blog posts are of interest, including this one at Church Marketing Sucks. It's all about North Point Community Church building a $5 million bridge for improved parking and traffic flow at their facility that holds thousands of folks every Sunday. For me, being smack in the middle of Shane's book, but always having a nagging feeling about how churches spend their money, I've got to ask: Really? You're really going to do that?

Sarah Silverman (comedian) has proposed that the Vatican do what Jesus told us to do and feed the poor. How? Sell the Vatican. It's a silly three minute clip that I won't link here because of language content, but it's very tongue in cheek, and parts of it are funny. And, in its weird little way, it begs the question: why do churches have (or are asking for) all kinds of money while people are starving? Claiborne's book echoes that sentiment.

I think I could argue the other side, too: people need to know Jesus. Unchurched people have all kinds of reasons why they don't go to church, and, in the case of North Point, one reason could be that it's a pain to drive in and out of their parking lot. I get it. But contrast this with Jesus telling people that if we are to follow Him, we must take up our cross and deny ourselves. It begs the question, what are we "churching" people into? Jesus was up front about the cost of following Him, and the expecations therein. Spending millions of dollars so that people won't be inconveinenced seems to send the wrong message to the unchurched. That message seems to be that we want to serve you, so when you decide to keep attending, you can expect being served again and again. Contrast that with people leaving Jesus because His teaching hard to understand or hard to live out, and you'll see the problem.

For those of you who are saying, "Yeah, sure, but YOU take a full-time church salary, and YOU work at a church with a nice facility." Yep, I sure do. But, in the words of Darius Rucker, don't think I don't think about it. I wonder how far is too far.

Rob Bell has been talking about things that churches don't like to talk about. His talking about those things is talked about here. What's interesting are the comments, which misconstrue what the article is saying so that an attack on Bell can be made. I won't explain it, but if you read it, you'll see it, and mourn another nail in the coffin of reasonable discourse.

So, that's the well known pastor round-up. Fascinating, huh?

And now, for no reason, here's a video of Bob Dylan playing "Saved":

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Wilco (the blog post)

So, like I said in the last post, I saw Wilco. First time for me. It was one of the best shows I've seen. Liam Finn, a multi-instrumentalist, chronic looper and rock and roll progency, opened the show. Very cool. Wilco's got a new record out, called "Wilco (the album)", which has a song called "Wilco (the song)" (more about that in a minute). My wife bought a tote bag at the show, which has on it silk screened "Wilco (the tote)".

I've only recently really been into Wilco. They've been on my radar for a while, ever since their first record, "A.M.". But, they never really clicked for me until the last year or so. Now, much like Superdrag for me, I'm trying to get ahold of everything on vinyl by them that I can. I know, though, that, initially, I wasn't interested. Let me take you back to 1995.

In the early 90's, there was "alternative" music, and the teenagers saw that it was good. They bought copious amounts of it. Most of them didn't realize that, since they'd mainstreamed this "alternative" (read: Grunge), that it was no longer alternative. During that whole time when all these flannel wearers killed glam rock, there was a whole other undercurrent, which was the "No Depression" movement. Well, maybe not a movement. But, it was its own thing. It was called alt. country, Americana or who knows what else. It was rocked up country. Twangy punk. Whatever. And elitist music snobs like myself saw that IT was good, too. But, most others didn't notice.

Out of old country, rock and even punk influence came this Alternative Country stuff, and Uncle Tupelo was a part of it. The Jayhawks, too. And some other great bands as well. Uncle Tupelo played twangy country loudly. And there were two main guys in UC: Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. In a few years, deals were signed, tours were booked, a major label record was recorded and released, and the fighting and pettyness that success can bring reared its pointed little head. Jay wouldn't sing back up on Jeff's songs when they toured, they got into physical altercations, and so forth. UC split. Jay formed Son Volt. Jeff formed Wilco.

I read about all this at the time, and here's what I thought. Aren't two gifted songwriters better than one? Why are they such big babies? They're living the dream as rock stars. They were living MY dream, and they were being whiny brats. They were what was wrong with music, where musicians did their own thing instead of collaboration, and music suffered. I still think that somewhat today. After all, why can't artists work together when their best work was made together? Why can't churches work together instead of splintering?

Early on in ministry, I once suggested at a meeting of ministers in my town that we just all form one church, just like the early church only had one church in each town. It was so absurd to them, that they didn't even acknowledge that I said it. So, instead of pooling resources, manpower and prayers, small towns all across this country have 10-20 churches, most of them dying. Yeah, that's much better than my idea. Anyway....

Jay and Jeff split, formed two bands, and it was kind of like a divorce for music fans. I picked Jay's Son Volt, at least initially. He had his album out first. The single was good, and Wilco's record, "A.M", didn't get the airplay that Jay's record did. (This was pre-internet-as-music-conduit, kiddies). I stayed up with Son Volt for a while, bought CD's by both artists, but didn't spin 'em as much as other records. I thought I was vindicated in my indictment of both guys: their selfishness had allowed art to suffer.

Then I hear "Wide Swing Tremelo", Son Volt's best record. Then I hear "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot", Wilco's best. Then, I stand corrected. These guys are doing way better following their vision than compromising it for each other.

As always, there's Bible to back it up.

36Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." 37Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, 38but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. 39They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Acts 15:36-41)

Long story short, the Gospel is preached to more places because of the parting of the ways here. Some separation and subsequent segmentation can be good. Uncle Tupelo begat two great bands. I've read a few ministers and Christian authors lamenting the number of church plants that we have in U.S. They think that those church planters should use established churches, I guess. It sounds good, but those churches are so entrenched in their culture sometimes that they can't see any other way to reach out, if they reach out at all.

A friend of mine planted a church close to another church that I'd attended. He'd attended there as well, and had left the community for several years. He came back to plant this church, and, while in that process, talked to the leadership of the church we'd both attended (confused yet?) At the time, I thought, how could he do this? This is a church that has really cared for him. How could he plant another church (rival church, in my thinking) so close to ours? He knew something that I didn't, that our church, because of its traditions and conventions, just wasn't getting the job done, wasn't reaching out to the community and becoming a part of it. I didn't see it, because I didn't know that churches could do that. I'd never seen it work that way.

A lot of ministers I know don't like church plants. I have to say that there is a lot of people coming to Christ because of them, that may not have if there had not been a Christian presence where they were at. They don't have the baggage that some more established churches do. They don't have to appease any group of people in their church, because they don't have any groups in their church. They just have people.

I would also mention church splits in regard to this. Granted, church splits can be very bad, very hurtful, but I also believe that they can be a way to reach out, to give more variety to how we preach the Gospel, much like using different translations of the Bible to reach people where they are at. Church splits and church plants are not the same thing, but both can be used. Like Son Volt and Wilco, or like Barnabas and Paul, you may end up with something greater in the end.

Blogger Did a Bad, Bad Thing

I've been a bad, bad blogger. I've neglected this blog for two months, after years of blogging consistently. Bad, bad blogger. Swat my nose with a rolled up newspaper. Rub my nose in the chasm that has been created by my lack of words.

I have a feeling you are doing fine without my wonderful posts.

But, it's time to get back on the horse, I suppose. So, here's some housekeeping:

1) I've been enjoying Tim's posts at Church Voices about being a bad consumer. Check 'em out:
Be a Bad Consumer
BABC # 2: When You Put it That Way
BABC #3: Credit
BABC #4: The Long Con
BABC #5: You Probably Don't Need Credit

Sit back, read, and enjoy the deconstruction and destruction of group think.

2) I've been involved a lot lately in my research of songwriting, publishing and the music business. I attended Back Third Audio's songwriting conference, have had several songs reviewed by the wonderful folks at NSAI, and have been reading posts on Songramp and Songwriter 101. I will have some posts regarding this soon.

3) Since I posted last, I've seen Phish, U2 and Wilco. Great shows, all. Bob Dylan comes up Chicago way in late October. I'll be there as well.

4) I've added a bunch of blogs to my bloglines reader. Comixed, Up Next in Sports and People of Walmart are the funny ones, and they're all different degrees of funny. People of Walmart is also disturbing, unfortunate or confusing at different times. Lefsetz Letter is a music industry blog. Free Range Kids and Phoenix Preacher are self explanatory. Not all posts on these blogs are "G" rated, and I don't endorse all of the content, so I don't want to see any nasty comments about these links. We're all grown-ups here, right?

5) Question: If you aren't downloading songs from Daytrotter's concert series, why not?

6) Chynna Phillips records a Christian album. See what happens when I'm not paying attention to my blog?

Next up: a post about Uncle Tupelo.