Bellingham Concert Review
In his typical humble and unassuming manner, Rich Mullins took the stage on May 18 at Bellingham, Washington. No light show, no trumpet fanfare, no piano rising from the stage. He simply wandered over to the piano stool and sat down, turned towards the microphone, and told us, "Here's a song I played for years before Amy Grant took it and messed it up." After smiling at his friendly jab, he began playing "Praise to the Lord," and an amazing evening with Rich Mullins was underway. It was surprising in that it was identical to the Zion recording he made over fifteen years ago. The piano arrangement was exactly the same, although he has surely played it thousands of times since then. All of the passion and intensity that marked his music back then is still as evident as ever, and his piano playing was flawless in comparison to his early music days while still in college (for the first time, that is! :->).
While still at the piano, Rich moved without speaking into "Here In America" and "Screen Door" before switching over to the guitar to play "I Will Sing" and then "Hope to Carry On." Then Mitch McVicker joined him on stage and they played "Where You Are," "Creed," and "Calling Out Your Name" together. Rich explained the musical that he and Mitch have been working on for the past year. The story is that of St. Francis of Assisi, but instead of a monk in the Middle Ages, "Frank" is a cowboy in nineteenth century America. From talking to Mitch after the concert, their plans are to release the music as an album later this year and then hopefully release the performance of the entire work on video later. He didn't say if they were thinking about taking the actors on the road to perform as a part of a tour, but that would be quite ambitious. Recording of the music was to begin the day after the concert, so the studio work is probably finished. After introducing the musical, he told us about the origins of the interest in St Francis. He and Beaker founded the order for people who wanted that type of lifestyle but were too chicken to join the Catholic Church. Mitch was introduced as the newest member. Rich and Mitch played a selection from the musical, but I didn't catch the name of it, somebody's world. If it is any indication of the quality of the music in the rest of the play, I'm excited to hear the completed work.
After the song, Rich explained that Beaker was no longer touring with him because he was spending his time being a dad. He told us that he thought that being a dad was really cool and that for all the parents in the audience to consider parenthood one of the highest callings possible. He said that a parent bringing up their kids with all the love and support that they need is a blessed thing to witness. And for parents who aren't always caring for their kids the way they should: "Well, we all make mistakes and that's alright, but you should just spend the time loving your kids the way they need to be loved." He said that Beaker was talking one day about his son, Aidan, and that one night he went in to tuck Aidan in and kneeled down for their "talking to God" time. Aidan started out by saying, "Thank you Lord for this day," and then without a word from his dad, Aidan took it from there and did the rest by himself. Rich thought that introducing a spouse or other loved one to know God was a blessed event, but that a son or daughter was even more powerful an experience. After speaking about Aidan for so long, Rich naturally began singing "Let Mercy Lead" and then followed it with "Bound to Come Some Trouble."
At this point, Carolyn Arends surprised everyone by joining Mitch and him on stage. There was no hint that she would be there until she appeared and it took most people a few seconds to realize who she was. But once the audience recognized her, it was clear from the excited murmurs that she was definitely a welcome surprise. The three of them led us in the old campfire round. One group sang "I'm Gonna Sing" while another sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and a third sand "Oh When the Saints." It was always fun around the campfire, but nothing like 1,700 people singing with the direction of several of the best Christian music has to offer! So that was lots of fun. Carolyn followed with two songs of her own, "What I Wouldn't Give" and "Seize the Day." She also told us that she had been involved in a tribute concert for Rich in Nashville and performed for us her rendition of "Jacob and 2 Women." Carolyn was finished with her selections all too quickly, but it was soon forgotten as Rich returned to sing "Step By Step" for us.
Rich told us about his upcoming teaching assignment at the mission school in Arizona for the Navajo tribe. He told us it is the only mission school in the country that is accredited as a real school, and he couldn't understand why more of them weren't up to the same standards as regular schools. He said that many things are done shoddily in the name of Christ, as if putting his name with it gives it extra credence. Rich thought that if we wanted to do a bad job at something, we should use our own name and keep Christ's out of it. This school was something that Rich said he could feel proud about and know that the children were receiving a quality education at the same time as they learned about Christ. He told us that while he was visiting the mission school, a reporter from Chicago was visiting to interview him for an article he was writing. The only problem was that the reporter had already planned for the article to be about how ignorant the Indian children were and how Rich was going to be a superhero to go and educate them. The education that occurred was in the other direction in this case though. Because while they were conducting the interview, one of the little boys at the school came to Rich and showed him a model solar system he was working on. He told him about the distance between the planets and the distance to the stars and how many million miles it was, he told him about the size of the planets and the differences between them, he told him about comets and asteroids and meteors, he told Rich about all of these things that Rich and the reporter didn't even know. When the man from Chicago realized that these were not the ignorant, uncivilized children he had imagined, he left and returned to his newspaper without even finishing the interview. He didn't realize that Rich simply wanted to share the love of God and the love of music with children at a mission school in Arizona. And Rich said that the hardest part of his student teaching at the public schools was that he couldn't share his faith with them at the same time as he taught them music. He seemed to be very excited about the chance to share music with them and at the same time be able to share his faith.
He then began to speak of the government. He told us that if there is any hope for peace and justice in the world, it won't come from the government. Instead, it will come from the church. After four years of President Clinton, the religious right has worked very hard to come up with a candidate to run against him, and they haven't found one. That, Rich told us, is good news. Rich described the work that he has done with Compassion International overseas, but also emphasized the importance of the work that is needed here in the United States. He encouraged us to support the work that they do with our prayers and our offerings, and we watched a short video describing the work being done by Compassion International in the inner cities and Indian Reservations of America. After the video, there was a short intermission.
After a few minutes, Rich and Mitch played a Bach duet on mandolins. "Brother's Keeper" followed the intermission. Rich then told us a story about Irish Erin sweaters. The Irish were a nation of sailors, but the boats they made weren't very safe, so they often would sink. The women would knit the sweaters while their husbands were at sea, and they would say a special prayer while knitting. The husbands would then wear the finished sweaters while at sea and if the boat sank and they died, the sweaters would eventually wash up on the shore and they could be identified. After he finished, Rich said, "I don't know why I tell audiences that story. It's so charming and tragic." He introduced the song as one that, "I didn't write, but I wish I had," and then sang a very beautiful rendition of "Ready for the Storm" with help from the audience. It gave me a new appreciation for the song.
Rich then told us that he didn't become a Christian because he was impressed with a building he went to or because of a sermon he heard or a hymn he sang or anything like that. He said he became a Christian because of what Jesus did. If Jesus didn't do what we say He did, then the rest is just garbage anyway. He also said that the people in the church supported him and were there for him when he needed it. Then answered his questions when they could and they told him they didn't know when they couldn't. He appreciated the honesty and forthright attitude that they used. He also appreciated that they told him off the times that he sinned and made mistakes.
Finally, he opened it up for requests, "Are there any songs other than Awesome God that you wanted to hear?" Somebody yelled out "Peace," and he sang it for us. It was followed with "If I Stand," and I was very grateful to hear it, because I *love* the song and he skipped it last concert. He told us that sometimes he is asked where he gets his inspiration for the songs he writes. "Well duh, whatever the song is about!" he told us, "That always kind of hurts my feelings. If you say I don't get this song, that's fine because I'll probably agree with you."
Finally, he started the first few bars on the piano and everyone instantly recognized "Awesome God." With the crowd joyously singing along on the refrain, he sang it as if he really enjoyed it, and not as if it were the millionth time to do it. He said afterwards, "People ask me if I ever get tired of singing that song. Well, I do!" Lots of laughter for that one. He led us all in "It is Well With My Soul" followed by the Doxology. Rich left the stage the same way he came on, by casually wandering off. The thunderous applause was enough to finally get him back to play a couple more, though. He sang "Elijah" for us and then had us do his favorite rain trick, "I always love this one," he told us. The audience was split into four parts and we each did our portion of the rainstorm at his cue by either snapping our fingers together or clapping our hands or slapping our knees. Again, 1,700 people in an auditorium was quite amazing in comparison to my campfire memories. Instead of a little shower, it was a genuine thunderstorm downpour! And Rich was grinning from ear to ear by the end of it because it worked so well.
And with that, the concert was finished. And no encores the second time. I caught him backstage for just a second, but twenty other people had the same idea, and there wasn't much of a chance to talk to him. June 24 is supposed to be the date for the release of the greatest hits album. So, until the next time that Rich comes this direction to perform, there will be memories and a few photographs. And eight albums worth of music to listen to!
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