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Earlier this fall, at the behest of my daughter, I joined her for a concert by the David Crowder Band and three other Christian artists. Crowder was good, but the other artists really caught my attention – particularly an eclectic group called Gungor. 

Michael and Lisa Gungor played a mix of guitar, bass drum, keyboards and other odd instruments – accompanied by a cellist who also was a mean beat-boxer. Their 30-minute set concluded with their signature tune, “Beautiful Things.” It’s a simple song with a simple message:

All this pain

I wonder if I’ll ever find my way

I wonder if my life could really change at all

All this earth

Could all that is lost ever be found?

Could a garden come up from this ground at all?

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of the dust

You make beautiful things

You make beautiful things out of us

It’s not just the simple truth of the song that resonated in the Moore Theater that night. Gungor built on that chorus, repeating and reshaping it, building it in intensity and carrying all of us along in a beautiful moment of worship. Even this listener, often critical of Christian music, could not resist.

When Gungor finished, they walked off the stage to a huge ovation. Singer Chris August then walked onstage with his acoustic guitar and stood at the microphone as the cheers finally calmed. He smiled and said, “See what I have to follow every night?” We all understood.

Though we often feel far from beautiful, we remain God’s handiwork, a beautiful creation made in God’s image. However far we may feel at times from our Creator, God’s mark on our lives persists nonetheless. God has made a beautiful thing out of dust, and out of us.

Note: This post also appears at my church’s Advent blog, Calvin Voices.

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Earlier  this month I savored a second chance to take in U2’s 360 tour, this time at Seattle’s Qwest Field (the first time was in Vancouver, B.C., in October 2009). After one of the coldest, cloudiest and rainiest springs in memory, the skies above the Emerald City finally cleared and the temperatures soared to the mid-70’s. With grand views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, all accented by a brilliant sunset, we couldn’t have asked for a better night.

What I saw, for a second time, was a brilliant performance hampered by spotty, muddy sound. Others I know who attended noted the same, though Charles Cross called the show “a magnificent night of music” in his Seattle Times review. I wonder: Just where he was sitting? (The Times, by the way, offered a nice photo gallery.)

More significantly, with a third of the set list changed  from the first go-around, along with many alterations in video, the character of show changed significantly. Rolling Stone recently called this leg of the tour a victory lap, and that’s about right.

Until this tour one of U2′ defining traits was that, as the New Yorker noted in early 2009, it was “an old band whose new songs get the most applause.” Though they’ve been recording and touring for more than 30 years now, a new U2 album remained an event. How many other bands have been able to say that?

But 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon” never won the embrace of fans, and the changes in the set list most notably de-emphasized that album. Gone were “Breathe,” “Unknown Caller” and  “No Line on the Horizon.” I can understand the change: In the Vancouver show, these songs never generated a response that matched the cheers for the older songs.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Adam Clayton acknowledged as much:

We would like to be playing more of the material from the album. It got great reviews. There’s great material on the record, but there’s no point banging away songs to people who don’t get it. It didn’t catch fire. It’s old news now. The single didn’t work, and when the single doesn’t work people don’t have a way into the record.  

I assume that “the single” Clayton is referring to “Get On Your Boots,” which remains in the show but really isn’t a high point either. So, beyond the show’s incredible visuals, what made the revamped U2 360 memorable? Memories themselves.

Without “No Line on the Horizon” as an anchor, the band turned toward nostalgia. Rather than look forward, U2 paused to look back.  The set list contained at least one song from each U2 album, which led to nice glimpses at rarely performed tunes: “Scarlet,” “Zooropa” and “Miss Sarajevo” stood out.

Moreover, the video emphasized the show’s nostalgic turn: When songs from “The Joshua Tree” and “Achtung Baby” made their appearance the band displayed footage from photo shoots for both albums. You had the lads tooling around the desert in the late 1980s or in Berlin in the early 1990s. It was cute in an old home-movie sort of way.

Still, it’s not the best of signs when a band looks back rather than forward. Artists only have so many ideas, and U2 already has defied the odds with their longevity. Clayton and his band mates talk of having substantial amounts of new material to work on for a new album, but it’s an open question if their new material will find fresh ways to inspire.

I’m rooting for them, for it is difficult to imagine U2 becoming a perpetual nostalgia act like Paul McCartney or the Rolling Stones. But it feels like the band has reached a creative crossroads. How much inspiration do they have left? It’s an open question.

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His life has been a race

Love of the game thrill of the chase

It’s only 8 seconds but you live for the ride

Those lyrics are from the title track of Warren Haynes’ new album, “Man in Motion,”  and they could be an apt description of someone who once penned the line “My guardian angel wears a hard hat, else I wouldn’t be standin’ here today.”

If Haynes weren’t busy enough dueling with Derek Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band, touring with the Dead, and jamming with his own band, Gov’t Mule, he now takes a direction both different and familiar with this new collection of songs.

What’s different: With “Man in Motion,” Haynes puts aside his riotous jams with Mule for a smoother sound shaped by his early love of soul and rhythm and blues. He has assembled a terrific group of musicians, including Ivan Neville, Ruthie Foster, Ron Holloway, and George Porter, Jr., who recorded the album live in the studio over a period of six days. In an interview, Haynes says:

I was going for a kind of pre-rock sound. These songs, based in soul and blues, really require cleaner tones to pay respect to the era that inspired them and to really get to the emotional heart of the matter. I used the wah-wah and a few other effects, but there’s a lot of B.B. King, Albert King and Freddie King influence on this album from a guitar standpoint.

But at is core, “Man in Motion” is a vocal album, featuring Haynes soulful, well-worn voice at the forefront, with Holloway’s saxophone, Neville’s organ, and Foster’s vocals supplying wonderful support and counterpoint. The title track, as performed in the video at the top of this post, captures the flavor of the album, as does River’s Gonna Rise.

Still, it’s not that Haynes puts his jam-band roots aside, and that’s what’s familiar for his fans. The songs range from 5:30 to nearly 8 minutes in length, and Haynes offers plenty of guitar work, filled with emotion yet more restrained in temperament than what you hear with Mule. The influence of B.B. King is especially strong. Moreover, Haynes is a collaborator by nature and he plays off his new band mates; they bring out the best in one another. As he begins a tour this week, you can expect that Haynes will take these songs and stretch them out in new and delightful ways each night.

In terms of lyrics, “Man in Motion” is a mix of the topical and the personal, with snippets that capture the mysteries of love, with hope accented more than sorrow:

Oh, I don’t understand half the things you do

But I, I’d take a bullet for you.

Haynes recently told NPR that this collection “was about capturing emotion” rather than perfection in the studio. “Man in Motion” has the emotion, and it’s not too far off from perfect either. Now, if he only would add a Seattle date to his tour …

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How many hours does one have to spend at YouTube to find all the clips in this video — and then be able to hear how they all might mesh together into something original?

More time than I have, that’s for sure. But as a short break from grading final exams, reading papers, and preparing for Spring Quarter, this clip does just fine.

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Considering I am critical of most Christian music, it’s only fair to note that Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields” is a welcome exception, a gentle and moving departure from the power ballads that dominate Christian radio.

Peterson’s song is a quiet meditation on the challenges of marriage, recognizing the mysterious, enduring power of love:

Well I was 19, you were 21
The year we got engaged
Everyone said we were much too young
But we did it anyway
We got the rings for 40 each from a pawnshop down the road
We said our vows and took the leap now 15 years ago

We went dancing in the minefields
We went sailing in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for

The song’s emotional heft arises from the restraint of Peterson’s vocals, the simplicity of its arrangement, and its grasp of love as more than sentimental fluff (though the video is more sentimental than the song itself). Love is hard. Love is humbling — oh so humbling. It is difficult, and the work never ends:

Well “I do” are the two most famous last words
The beginning of the end
But to lose your life for another I’ve heard is a good place to begin
‘Cause the only way to find your life is to lay your own life down
And I believe it’s an easy price for the life that we have found

There’s honesty here, a recognition of our ongoing challenges amid our perpetual hopes for the future — our sense of living in the already and not yet. The space where grace resides. Though Peterson does not use the word covenant, it is that understanding of love as a promise — a covenant — that permeates the song. Such a promise is an anchor when all else is coming apart, and it is a beacon that shows the way through the minefields of love. Yes, there are wounds along the way, but the journey is worth the risk: 

So when I lose my way, find me
When I lose love’s chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith to the end of all my days
when I forget my name, remind me

‘Cause we bear the light of the Son of man
So there’s nothing left to fear
So I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands
Till the shadows disappear
‘Cause He promised not to leave us
And his promises are true
So in the face of this chaos baby,
I can dance with you

So let’s go dancing in the minefields
Lets go sailing in the storms
Oh, let’s go dancing in the minefields
And kicking down the doors
Oh, let’s go dancing in the minefields
And sailing in the storms
Oh, this is harder than we dreamed
But I believe that’s what the promise is for
That’s what the promise is for

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This delightful video is about as close as I get to serious math these days. The ability of others to create something fun in the most unlikely of places (at least for me) reminds me of the boundless imagination of this world. Enjoy.

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As much as I am a fan of Eric Clapton, I can’t see shelling out $959,500 for one of his guitars — as one person did for Clapton’s legendary Blackie in 2004. Not that I have that kind of cash lying around the house, anyway.

But with Clapton auctioning off another batch of guitars, amps and other gear this week (see video), The New York Times examines the work of social scientists on the attachment of some folks place on possessions of the famous.

It’s magic:

One of their conclusions is that the seemingly illogical yearning for a Clapton relic, even a pseudorelic, stems from an instinct crucial to surviving disasters like the Black Death: the belief that certain properties are contagious, either in a good or a bad way. Another conclusion is that the magical thinking chronicled in “primitive” tribes will affect bids for the Clapton guitars being auctioned at Bonhams in Midtown Manhattan.

Some bidders might rationalize their purchases as good investments, or as objects that are worth having just because they provide pleasant memories and mental associations of someone they admire. But those do not seem to be the chief reasons for buying celebrity memorabilia, according to a team of psychologists at Yale. …

The most important factor seemed to be the degree of “celebrity contagion.” The Yale team found that a sweater owned by a popular celebrity became more valuable to people if they learned it had actually been worn by their idol. But if the sweater had subsequently been cleaned and sterilized, it seemed less valuable to the fans, apparently because the celebrity’s essence had somehow been removed.

“Our results suggest that physical contact with a celebrity boosts the value of an object, so people will pay extra for a guitar that Eric Clapton played, or even held in his hands,” said Paul Bloom, who did the experiments at Yale along with George E. Newman and Gil Diesendruck.

Hmm, OK. But one guitar player gave the Times a similar, yet simpler explanation:

 Any connection with Eric adds some kind of musical mojo.

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