Thursday, February 5, 2009

(bluebird) EP - Randall Goodgame

A whimsical singer/songwriter balances world-weary sentiment with hope

(bluebird) EP
Artist: Randall Goodgame (
Label: brite entertainment
Length: 6 tracks/23:09 minutes

You may have “heard” Randall Goodgame without realizing it. He’s written 15 songs for Caedmon’s Call and collaborated and sung with Andrew Peterson. In addition, he’s had three previous solo releases. His last, War and Peace (2004), included a three part ode to Charlie Brown. How can you not like someone who writes a song about that loveable loser? It’s indicative of the sometimes-whimsical nature of Goodgame’s songwriting.

On (bluebird) it’s the wistful lines that resonate. On the title song he sings, “Bluebird, bluebird, don’t you fly away. Bluebird, bluebird, don’t stay gone. Sometimes I’m up all night. Sometimes it just takes a bluebird, to write a song.” This is not about one species of our winged friends of the air. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the intense but complicated desire one feels for a lost love. It’s an extraordinary song that has more depth than the common fare about romance.

It’s also a masterpiece of pop. As it builds, every word and sound border on perfection. This and the next two tracks are my favorites. This middle-aged reviewer can relate to the struggle and world-weariness that are heard.

Goodgame’s pensive side is obvious on “All the Years.” “I’ve grown tired of all the years. I can feel my bones grinding down. I used to keep all my fears, but I've grown tired of all the years.” The chorus expresses a yearning for change and security, “Take me away; take me away my love. Can you find me a road I’ve never been on? Take me away; take me away my love. I’m tired. Can you just take me home?”

It’s the combination of longing and hope that make this such a delectable listen. You hear both on “Heaven Waits.” “Heaven waits. Heaven waits. There will be troubled times, but there will come a grace. Heaven waits. Heaven waits.” He longs for the day when he will see his Savior face to face. He imagines that “like a bird flown from the cage, all my questions (will) melt away.”

Musically, what makes this interesting is a subtle shift from the folk and Americana heard on previous releases to indie pop. Quinlan, the producer, adds light programming and fascinating production finishes that give Goodgame a slightly different sound. He has a great supporting cast that includes guitarist Andy Osenga (Caedmon’s Call), and his wife Amy once again provides backing vocals. John Catchings, the celebrated cello player, is part of the occasional strings that are heard.

The new sound is also partly due to an instrument change. Goodgame has gone back to writing with a piano rather than a guitar. He grew up with the piano, and it’s the instrument that he finds the most comfortable.

“If I had forty-two dollars, I would grant myself a loan,” Goodgame sings on the opening of “Jubilee,” the last track. At first I couldn’t comprehend what he meant by these words. Then it dawned on me that Israel’s jubilee every fifty years was the time when debts were forgiven and captives set free. It’s playful and creative way of looking forward to the time when all sorrow and suffering will cease. This is a rousing gospel song that takes a brief but delightful detour into the chorus of “Unclouded Day.” It sounds like Darwin Hobbs on an uncredited guest vocal.

Goodgame spreads his wings on this release and soars high. Grace and hope undergird the realistic perspective on the trials of life. This bird is worth repeated listens.

Steve Bell in concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra DVD

One of Bell’s finest moments

Steve Bell in concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra DVD
Artist: Steve Bell (
Label: Signpost Music (
Length: Seven songs, and short interviews, cover approximately 48 minutes. Bonus content consists of four segments (two music videos plus two short documentaries) that chronicle Bell’s involvement in alleviating poverty.

It’s not every artist that has their songs performed by a symphony orchestra. For Steve Bell, this honor of a lifetime was captured on DVD, when he and a small band played at the Francis Winspear Centre for Music in Edmonton with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Recorded in High Definition and mixed in 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound, this is the next best thing to being there.

As conductor Rei Hotada remembers it, neither artist or orchestra occupied the foreground with the other in the background. This is a collaborative effort where they played as one.

Much of the credit goes to pianist Mike Janzen, who did a superb job of orchestrating a selection of Bell’s best songs. He also shines on those moments when he takes a solo.

The arrangements bring new depth to compositions that were already poetic and beautiful. If you are not among the initiated, Bell is a singer/songwriter along the lines of fellow Canadian, Bruce Cockburn, whom Bell regards as an inspiration. It’s fitting that Bell’s cover of Cockburn’s “Lord of the Starfields” is included. The symphony adds majesty with brass that punctuates and strings that add delicacy.

One minor drawback for some may be the apparent made-for-TV format. You cannot watch the concert without breaks between songs. Some songs may have been cut, which might be one reason for some of the interruptions. Most breaks have Bell, band members and others providing thoughtful reflections. Paul McCartney’s most recent concert DVD was also done with interviews and commentary between songs. This format has the advantage of adding interest and variety and makes watching a concert less tedious. I also like this because it lets me learn more about the artist and the performance.

You only get a little of the dialog and storytelling that Bell is known for during the concert. One delightful exception is the funny story that introduces “Even So.” Performing with an orchestra may have made it best to keeping the talking short.

Of all the songs, the instrumental “Waiting for Aidan,” was ideally suited for orchestra arrangement since it sounds like a show tune. The symphony is broadly engaged here as it is throughout the performance. Again, Janzen deserves a lot of credit for this.

This presentation is capped-off appropriately with “Wellspring/Holy Lord,” which sounds like something right out of Handel’s Messiah. The horns in particular give it that baroque sound. Think of the piccolo trumpet solo in “Penny Lane” by The Beatles and you get an idea of the style. Getting back to the Messiah analogy, it’s almost a wonder that the crowd didn’t rise to their feet. It’s a moving piece of vocals and music.

I’ve had limited exposure to classical music, but it’s not hard for me to applaud the artistry and excellence that you get to see as well as hear. Seeing it performed makes me appreciate the music more.

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