Friday, August 24, 2007

Ken Medema in Concert

Sunday afternoon Deb and I traveled to "inner city" Indianapolis to participate in a Ken Medema concert. I use the word "participate", although we were just a part of the audience. But there is no way to attend a Medema concert without becoming a participant.

Where to begin...I've been a huge fan/follower of Ken's music and approach to performance since my college days in the mid 1970s. It had been probably 8 years since we last attended a concert - he doesn't tend to get close to our area often (hopefully something we can remedy). Ken has always moved mostly in church-related spheres, yet he has transcended the narrow categories that most musicians of that "genre" fall into. Deb asked me the week before why I was so drawn to his music, when I tend to not give a lot of room to corporate "spiritual" talk. (I believe spiritual experiences and opinions are so subjective that most attempts to normalize people around them tend to divide rather than unite.) I retorted that Ken's compositions rarely mention God in overt ways - they tend to talk more about relationships, community, dreams, heroes, pain, healing, work, and play - very tangible, relevant things in my opinion. About 3/4 of the way through the concert, I leaned over and pointed out to her that he had only mentioned Jesus once, in a song retelling the biblical story of Zaccheus. He has composed e a number of songs that retell similar stories, but they don't tend to be my favorites from his reporitoire. And they always pull a new dimension/perspective from those stories. You don't have to say Jesus/God over and over ad nauseum in order to speak to and call out the image of God that is in all of us.

Musically Ken is a phenomenon. He has been blind since birth - I believe only seeing some shapes and degrees of light/dark. Yet he moves on stage between the piano, synthesizers, and drum machines like he has eyes in the back of his head and on the ends of his fingers. His keyboard performances are virtuoso level technically, and he constantly merges varied musical styles into his compositions - jumping from classical to modern jazz to rock to world music motifs within the same song. On Sunday I especially enjoyed hearing how some familiar songs - especially "Color Outside the Lines" and "Bound Together" - had morphed over time to include new stylistic and lyrical aspects. I could go on and on about the musicianship at work here - suffice it to say I'm glad Ken lets us all into the musical ideas that are in his head.

A special treat on Sunday was to hear his road manager, sound engineer, and visual navigator (she has a seeing-ey dog t-shirt that says "Don't bother me, I'm working...) Beverly Vander Molen perform on the 60-rank pipe organ that had been installed at Broadway United Methodist Church just a few years back. They played together on "We'll Walk No Longer" which does some great rhythmic morphing throughout it's course. Wish we could have spent a little more time around Broadway church as well - a very unique mix of high-church architecture and community focus - at least those were my impressions.

Speaking to the audience experience, Ken makes eye/heart contact through body language, vocal nuances, and constant attempts to encourage the audience to participate in his songs - singing along, completing sentences, and many other seemingly spontaneous actions. His academic training was in music therapy, and this element has continued to fuel his compositions and performances. No where is this more evident than during the segments where he invites members of the audience to tell personal stories and he responds with instant compositions. This past Sunday the two standout compositions were in response to an elderly woman talking about her work for the past 15 years with HIV/AIDS patients and a man sharing experience of he and his partner adopting a young girl with a horrific past. Both of these songs were "final quality", rather than just doodling. Many songs on his recordings start out as responses to stories, speeches, and events. (Ken will write/record personal songs upon request - for any occasion, person, subject - see details here.)

To my knowledge no one else does what Ken Medema does. That's a real shame - I wish it could be cloned or bottled so that communities all over could experience the dynamics and interactivity on a consistent basis. Short of that, he certainly provides a model and approach that many of us can learn from as we explore how to relate to ourselves and each other within our families, communities, churches, and world.

Deb and I were able to spend some time with Ken and Beverly back in July while he worked on his new recording project in Louisville. I'm listening some of those tracks as I post, and can't wait for the release in September. I'll post more about that release when it becomes official - let's just say it's as great as I would hope/expect from this musical phenomenon.


brian said...

Wow, I almost feel as if I were there. Glad you guys enjoyed the concert!


Dave said...

This is a really nice review, Chuck. I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never seen Ken Medema live even though he does concerts around Grand Rapids quite frequently and I've heard about him for years. For all I know, he lives here in town, or used to at least. (Vander Molen is a name one sees around here a lot more than in almost any other part of the country, I imagine.)

I hope your write-up spurs me to get to one of his shows and take advantage of the opportunity to see what has got you so excited!

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