I used to live with my father in New Brunswick, NJ. One of my chores was to walk two blocks to the nearest bodega, and get the Sunday paper. This would always take me longer than it should have. You see, I had never lived in a city before, and the walk took me past a black Baptist church. I would stand outside that church, and even with the doors closed, I would marvel at the raw power of the sound coming from within. It was the sound and the power of the human voice unleashed. Walking past McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica CA on a certain two nights in 1998 must have been a similar experience. That’s because The Persuasions were in town.
No, I’m not reviewing an album from 1998. Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a brand new release. But it is a recording of a 1998 performance that is only now being released for the first time. Even more surprisingly, it is the only currently existing live album by the group. Executive producer Rip Rense says in his notes that there are some unreleased live recordings from the 1970s; if those ever come out, I’ll be sure to let you know.
At the time of the McCabe’s show, one of the Persuasions was celebrating his 59th birthday, so this album is not the work of young men. It doesn’t matter very much. There are occasional dropped notes, there are some lines sung in full voice that might have been falsetto once, and they probably have to take breaths more frequently than they once did. But the power and precision that a cappella music demands is there. The Persuasions arrive on stage with great energy, and it never flags.
Jerry Lawson was the main arranger for the Persuasions during his time with the group, (Lawson left in 2003), and his arrangements here shine. The Persuasions had three basic techniques available to them: they could back a lead vocal line with unison harmony lines; they could have a lead line, a moving bass line, and a cushion of chords sung by the four middle voices; or they could have the moving bass line topped with a call-and-response between the lead and the middle voices. Lawson’s arrangements mix and match these techniques, sometimes within a single song. It never sounds showy or overly busy, but it does make listening to over an hour of just voices continuously exciting.
The Persuasions take the stage, and dive right into I Woke Up in Love This Morning. They capture audience immediately. They deliver a wonderful combination of high energy and the total focus that is so necessary to make a cappella music work. After four up-tempo numbers, they switch it up with the ballad, 500 Miles Away From Home. Here is where they could lose it, if they were going to. Switching gears like this requires the greatest concentration, and they pull it off beautifully. Peace in the Valley follows. This is another ballad, and the first gospel number on the program. They manage to express a devotion to their faith here which has a different quality than the devotion to earthly love that they had expressed to this point.
One of the joys of Live at McCabe’s is the interplay between The Persuasions and their audience. You can tell that they loved their audiences. This recording also preserves much of the between song stage patter, in which the group’s sense of humor is nicely displayed. And you can tell that Under the Boardwalk was a highlight of their shows; here the audience joins the singing, and they group becomes a mighty choir.
The program is a mix of gospel numbers and secular ones. The Persuasions show that they live in the world, but that their faith is strong. So Frank Zappa’s song The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing is an odd choice here. It is true that The Persuasions recorded an entire album of Zappa’s songs, including Meek, but here it stands out of context. The song is a scathing rebuttal of “Jesus freaks”. The performance is as strong as any on the album, but the content is jarring.
Overall, then, Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is a wonderful document of The Persuasions’ live act. While the group is not at the height of their powers, they do show why they remained vital for so long. I have only one other quibble. If you listen to the album straight through, as intended, you won’t notice. But if you want to put a single track on a home made compilation, you will discover that the spoken introduction to a given song is on the end of the previous track. I was limited in which tracks I could post because of this; fortunately, the material is strong enough throughout that I could work around it.
Tracks removed at the copyright holders request. preview tracks are available for listening here.