Concert Review: Dixie Echoes

Thursday night, Ascension Day, I had the chance to see the Dixie Echoes live and in person. Despite the fact that Stewart Varnado is my favorite pianist currently on the road, this was my first time to see the group. It isn’t entirely my fault; this was their only Ohio concert in 2007.

The church’s choir opened with two songs, “Soon and Very Soon” and “Get All Excited.” The choir was even more interesting to watch than to listen to, since nearly every single one of the approximately twenty members looked like he or she had a quite distinct and pronounced personality. One looked like an intellectual, another like an actor, and a third like she could be quite cross when she had to. (Now why did I say that? I am getting off track here.)At any rate, the choir exited to applause and the Dixie Echoes took the stage. They opened with a trio of fast quartet songs, “Welcome Home My Child,” “If Jesus is There,” and “Up to the House of Prayer.”

Scoot Shelnut (Randy Shelnut Jr.), the baritone, was featured on “New Born Feeling.” His father, Randy Shelnut Sr., the group’s lead singer, sang “Praise the Name of God.”

While the Dixie Echoes record good CDs, they are at their best in the live setting. That statement is best illustrated by Stewart Varnado’s piano solo on “Just a Little While,” which was easily one of the evening’s highlights, and also prompted the evening’s first standing ovation.

Bass singer Tracy Crouch was featured on two songs, “Roll Away Troubled River” and “River of Jordan,” before the group pulled out the red-backed Church Hymnal to do “The Last Mile of the Way.”

Randy Shelnut sang the song “Little is Much” powerfully. After the song had ended to an enthusiastic response, they came out in front of their microphones and did an acapella encore. They were still close enough for there to be a bit of microphone pickup, but the acapella / no microphone effect was stellar and took the song to another level.

They sang an uptempo rendition of “Working on a Building” before heading to intermission. By the way, when I say “uptempo” here, I mean “so fast that you don’t really catch any of the words–but you’re having such a great time you don’t realize that until the song is over” uptempo.

After the intermission, they came back on stage with Tracy Crouch singing “Ole Brother Noah.” For whatever reason, he did an alternate high version on the line “God had Shut the Door,” singing it an octave above where he usually sang it. As others have said, Crouch “knows his limits and stays within them,” which is commendable even when it’s noticable. [EDIT, 6/7/12: Broken link removed.]¬†However, Crouch was warmed up enough by the next song to rattle the floor with some pretty low notes (as in low C/B-flat area) on “Bend Away Down Low.”

Scoot Shelnut sang “Until You’ve Known,” an old Happy Goodmans song that is a perfect fit for his voice and delivery style.

After a product pitch (delivered by pianist and group comedian Stewart Varnado), Randy Shelnut Sr. sang “Suddenly a Rainbow,” a song that had been requested by a member of the audience.

By this point, tenor Dallas Rogers, who hadn’t been featured on any particularly taxing songs, was warmed up enough for two consecutive solos. The first was a great rendition of “If We Never Meet Again,” delivered in a way that would make Archie Watkins proud (and that is meant as a compliment).

The second stands with “Little is Much” and Varnado’s piano solo as one of the evening’s highlights. Dallas Rogers sang “Oh What a Savior.”

Yes, I said that was a highlight of the evening.

Most Southern Gospel fans who have heard multiple groups have heard any number of tenor singers sing the song. But Southern Gospel fans tend to point to either Ernie Haase’s version or Rosie Rosell’s version of the song as the definitive version of the song. More than with most other songs, fans of one or the other–and I’m a Haase fan here–tend to say that no other rendition is in the same league as their favorite version of this song.

Well, this is partially an initial impression, but I have had two days to think it over. Let me say here that I think Dallas Rogers’ rendition is in the same league as Ernie Haase’s. Rogers does the song a half-step lower, F instead of F-sharp. (No, I don’t have perfect pitch–I asked Stewart Varnado what key it was in.) Like Haase, Rogers has picked a key where he actually increases power and volume as he authoritatively hits the higher notes.

Now I’m not saying his rendition is already at the same level as Ernie Haase’s. Haase has been singing the song for a quarter century–if I’m not mistaken, longer than Rogers has been alive. But if Dallas keeps working on the song, he could be the standard-bearer for the third generation of tenors singing that song.Rogers could improve his rendition by carrying the melody throughout the chorus, rather than handing two lines off to the rest of the group for a breather. But I do understand that he does not want to wear his voice out prematurely.

After a high point like that, I wouldn’t have felt like the concert was abbreviated or too short if it had stopped then and there. But the group did two more songs featuring Randy (“On the Wings of A Dove” and “How Great Thou Art”) before they thought they were done. But the church’s pastor asked them to sing one more song after the benediction, and so they featured Scoot on “Old Fashioned Meeting” to close out the night.

Back forty or fifty years ago, two-microphones-and-a-piano quartet singing was standard, but today it is unique. It is a nice and refreshing change once in a while to take a break from stacked vocals and over-amped soundtracks and listen to Southern Gospel the way it used to be.