Review: Steve Ladd ‘A Christmas Hymn’

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Leonardo Da Vinci once said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” that quote was the first thing that came to mind when I played this new album of collection of Christmas songs.  Pair a virtuoso pianist with an exceptional singer and you get sophistication. Steve Ladd is that exceptional singer, and the Gaither Vocal Band’s piano player Matthew Holt is that virtuoso! Holt arranged every song on this album. The recording produced by Ladd and Steve Allen.

 

The album starts out with ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and the piano introduction is so wonderful, tasteful and to the point. When Steve Ladd joins the already great music, it instantaneously becomes stellar! Just Steve with a piano….is heavenly! What a voice this wonderful brother has! Matthew Holt’s piano playing reminds me of John Pantry’s piano playing….very nice!

My favorite Christmas song is next ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’. Again just that voice and those ivory’s. Christmas songs are the ultimate opportunity for group singing, for harmonizing, the melodies lend themselves to all that, and of course the ‘together‘ oriented holiday attributes to that feeling. Not once throughout the album have I noticed the absence of background vocals…not once. Steve’s voice has such clarity and the semblance of innocence. Such a pristine tone….he don’t need no other singers.

‘El’ is the hebrew word for God and No means birth, NO-EL….birth God. ‘The First Noel’ what an awesome tune this is. In its current form, it is of Cornish origin, and it was first published in 1823. It is usually performed in a four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer, first published in his Carols, New and Old in 1871. Steve totally nails this magnificent song.

An album with the title ‘A Christmas Hymn’ could not be considered complete without ‘Silent Night’. To me Gold City’s version of this evergreen was the best ever! And in a group setting they still are, but solo this position goes to Steve Ladd! Wonderful playing and singing, can’t say it enough, you will have to listen for yourself. Like Walt Whitman said; “simplicity is the glory of expression”….my writing is anything but simple,  and therefore can not accurately express the brilliance of this recording.

‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ opens with a ridiculously good piano intro…wow…this is the best I’ve heard Matthew Holt play! This song was never my favorite, I could stand The Cathedral Quartet singing it, but all other renditions I usually skipped. The credits for this rendition’s captivating quality goes to Holt!

Next is another personal favorite Christmas tune, again Gold City held the favorite spot for nearly twenty years (that’s when I first heard their rendition), and now there’s Steve Ladd knocking ‘Away in a Manger’ out of the park. It’s all about the respect for the original melody. And the lyrics are so easily understood due to Ladd’s great diction. Tasteful and accurate piano playing embraces the voice, this isn’t just great accompanying, this is the song, it’s not about the guys anymore..it’s inexpressible. And the inexpressible which  can only be expressed by two things……music, or silence!

‘What Child is This? Composer William Chatterton Dix was an insurance salesman. At age 29, he was bedridden for months due to a near fatal illness. During this trying time Dix began to write hymns. The most memorable of his songs is What Child is This? Beautiful song set to the melody of an old English folksong. This rendition is truly one of the best I ever heard!

‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ again a treasure to my tiny Christmas music collection, I only enjoyed the following Christmas albums. Here’s that shortlist Gold City (Parker/Free era) Elvis (with Imperials) The Imperials (Taff era) Harry Connick Jr. And now Steve Ladd is added.  It is getting boring….I know…but I’m excited by this album!

What a joy this album is! Brought joy to my world, a world that can use some. ‘Joy to the World’ . Steve Ladd is a singer, his voice never is boring, he’s one of those tenors that you can listen to all day! There’s not many that I can stand listening to for the length of an entire album!

Knowing Steve personally I can sense the integrity and love this guy has for music, singing and his fellow-man. I know he is the real deal! That sincerity is reflected by his pure voice. He lives by a simple standard, he loves his Lord, and lives that to the fullest! If one quote is fitting for this album and it’s artist Leo Tolstoy said it best; ” There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth”.

 

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CD – Review ‘On My Own’ – Steve Ladd (by Auke Bijlsma)

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Steve Ladd has been on his own for almost 4 years now, and cranked out two albums prior to this CD. I must be honest I haven’t heard the first two. I heard Steve first with The Anchormen and later with Gold City singing the high part and he did a fine job back then. Now that I’m being honest, I also must confess that I bought almost no solo stuff put out by any tenor singers. Don’t get me wrong I love tenor singers, but only or mostly in a quartet setting. The often thin and high-pitched vocals usually get on my nerves after a few tracks. There are few exceptions I enjoy,  for instance I love Jonathan Pierce’s and David Phelps solo stuff. There’s a Larry Ford record I got, that was produced by Michael Sykes if I’m not mistaken. Oh and if Terry Franklin had made a solo record (sans Barbi) I would have bought it! And now I add Steve Ladd to that list, I know probably to short of a list for most, but hey I’m picky!  Either way, that’s good company any given day of the week Steve!

Steve’s voice has a quality to his voice that reminds me of singers like Dennis Deyoung of Styx, and that guy of The Sweet Comfort Band, can’t think of his name right now, but it’ll come to me later on. Steve’s got a high powerful voice, clear as bell, yet with a light raspy and vulnerable edge. This album was produced by Steve himself, Michael Sykes and Michael English. Both English and Sykes are vocally present on this album. Granted that Michael English his trademark background vocals are more prominent than any other background vocalist on the album. To me that is a good thing, because I’m an English fan from the first time I heard him.  Joyce Martin Sanders also sings back up on the album,  she is amazing, soulful and versatile. Let me take you through the tracks one by one…that’s probably sensible, since this ought to be a review of some sort.

First song on the album entitled ‘We Need Jesus’ written by John and Dino Elefante and Scott Springer. I knew this song from the 80’s reli-rock band Petra, and this where my opinion about Steve having that rock band lead singer quality makes suddenly sense. When he sings the first verse, he keeps it light and breathy. Steve sounds like a 17 year old during that first verse, and I mean that in a good way, he sounds kinda cute there. But when he breaks into the chorus singin’ ‘The Lord is Our God‘…he sounds like one of the best rock singer I have ever heard (Jerry Martin being the best).

Next song was penned by Bud Chambers who wrote over 7000 songs….funny thing is that once you have to mention that somebody wrote that many songs, folks only know one of two songs by that somebody. The song is “One More River To Cross‘. I always loved this song, ever since I heard it first on a Gaither tape….’And I heard it first on a Gaither tape‘ hmm got a nice ring to it.  Anyway Steve’s vocal treatment, and wonderful background singing by Michael English and Joyce Martin Sanders. The rhythm is good old stomping country tinged  rock and roll, they eliminate the usual swaying rhythm, and opt for a straight, almost mechanical pace, pumping the soul level to the max. Good stuff…man! Amazing BGV’s did I mention that already?!  Man!! do I love Michael English!

While we’re at it, the next tune is also a gem. Why? Well it is a lovely simple tune, well written lyrically and musically. Most songs that share that rare sacred bond are emotionally/musically functional. Meaning that it gets the message swiftly to where it’s supposed to be! Straight to the heart! Steve opens again in that beautiful vulnerable tone….while a acoustic guitar is lightly present. An organ caresses the then still frail frame of the song, but the buildup continues. The second story of the melodic building is crafted by Candy Hemphill Christmas. Candy daughter of the author of ‘Master of the Wind’ Joel Hemphill. She has such a wonderful clear voice, a voice solid as a rock, and yet delicate as fine china. A perfect match with Steve, a match that is made through harmony when they sing together. Beautiful isn’t word enough, divine comes closer, a Pentecostal would say ‘anointed!  And when Michael Sykes adds a third part it hits you! this is God-given talent any which way you look at it!  Candy Christmas is a wonderful singer, and a true representative of Christ’s love . Check out her Bridge Ministry, she deserves an extra star in her crown for that alone! So that’s sweet singing  by a sweet sister!

Next track already!! Well what can I say? It kinda starts uh kinda corny.  But then the chorus kicks in…and wow…love the counterparts Michael English sings around Steve, the next verse is amazing, and then that chorus again, intenser than the first, but not overdone….harmonies…well Eagles look out! Song’s title? Jesus Saves!

Steve Ladd’s next pick for the album is ‘Heaven‘ a song that was on Michael English’s first solo album! I must say that this song has never done it for me…but in this approach I kinda like it! There is much going on! Funny thing is that Michael’s  background singing makes this cut better than his own rendition. Well I can’t explain, won’t describe, or even attempt to do so! Buy the freaking record already and see for yourself!

‘We shall see the King, when He comes’ is one of my favorite tracks on this here CD! It’s gritty, with again amazing soulful back-up singing! It’s an old song! Written by either John B.Vaughan or James.D.Vaughan. The latter is the first man ever to put a Gospel Quartet on the road to sell shaped-note songbooks back in 1910.  John B. was a composer/writer who taught at a school of music down in Waco Tx. John B. Vaughan according to Wikipedia wrote only two songs, and that’s counting this one!  So I like to think John B. wrote this one too.  After all J.D. Vaughan wrote about six of ’em, and built an empire selling printed music. So let John B. have this one. What a lovely, lovely song John!

When I read the title of this song, I must admit that I hoped it to be another song.One with the exact same title. ‘Not Guilty’  is it’s title, and the song I hoped for was done by british gospel singer John Pantry. But it wasn’t the song I hoped for, though it may seem to some, that I had set myself up for a huge disappointment, and truth be told, I kinda did, didn’t I? How marvelous the surprise! What beautiful singing, wonderful lyrics and wonderful tasteful musicianship by the players. Disappointed? No sir, not at all, pleasantly surprised!

 Look out Bryan Duncan! ok there you go! See? I told you guys I would think of that name earlier on didn’t I? The next song is  sweet comfort in a dirty blues, and that’s a thumbs up y’all, very believable…for white guys that is. I mean…it’s been said that white men can’t jump, and that they can’t sing the blues either. Well you got another thing comin’. This is great, this is blues….with a amazing B3 solo thrown in for good measure. And brother Steve can sing….I think by now we can safely establish that!  The song’s entitled ‘I went away to pray’. Again the background vocalists are so great, that yours truly, a wannabe singer sat down and cried a little, after that I just went away and prayed ‘Lord will You make me better or them less good?  Great tune!

Now let me start with the song title first, I always forget to mention them early in my rants. Title is  ‘Breathe In, Breathe Out’. Now at least the title is out-of-the-way, or is it? Stupid to confess maybe, but I don’t get the title, the words don’t make sense to me. I won’t say what part I don’t get, but if you buy this amazing album, the unclear will be clear to you, or vice versa…or not at all. Spiritually I’m probably an infant, or a toddler at best.

Amazing, that to me,  this album is, how amazing Steve sings, amazing how the pickers and singers made Steve even look better than he already is. Never liked the pairing of the words ‘simply’ and ‘amazing’, …to me there’s nothing simple about grace, that’s what makes it kind of amazing! The last song is absolutely amazing, talks about the most amazing fact of life itself, that there’s Grace greater than all our sins. It’s amazing..and that is what this song says..’it’s Amazing’.

Onto the business end of music then, what’s the production-value of this album one might ask?  The answer to that one is,  it holds the highest production value of all…..and that is  feeling!  A lot of top-notch produced albums lack just that……feeling.

Let me conclude with a quote by an unknown author that says;

                                                    ‘Music is what feelings sound like’.

Album credits:

Produced by Michael Sykes, Michael English and Steve Ladd.

 Players: Joel Key-acoustic, electric guitars

Jonathon Brown- Organ, piano

Duncan Mullins- bass,session leader

Garth Justice- drums, programming

Steve Allen- percussion

Alan Pancake-  strings on Not Guilty, It’s Amazing

Dustin Jenkins-strings on Heaven

Tracks recorded at Cabana Studio (Garth Justice engineer)

Vocals recorded at Square One Studio (Steve Allen engineer)

Background vocals: Michael English, Joyce Martin Sanders, Steve Ladd

Mixed by Pete Green  

Mastered by Steve Allen