by Bill Paddack
Some of the best-loved names in Southern gospel united their voices for more than three hours of music, laughter and worship during Saturday night’s North Little Rock stop of the Gaither Homecoming Tour.
The Gaither Vocal Band, joined by The Nelons, The Isaacs, Charlotte Ritchie and Gene McDonald, served up a nice mix of old and new in what was, more or less, a group effort all night long before a sing-along crowd of 4,518 at Verizon Arena. And having the Singing Men of Arkansas male choir open both segments of the show was a nice touch.
Certainly, singling out a highlight or a favorite is hard to do in a concert featuring so much talent. David Phelps and Wes Hampton have terrific tenor voices, baritone Mark Lowry is simply hilarious — the comic relief, if you will — and Bill Gaither has a great time singing bass and running the show. But if anyone stood out in the current five-man alignment of the Gaither Vocal Band, we’d have to go with Michael English, the group’s multiple Dove Award-winning lead singer.
English — who chronicled his fall from grace in the world of Christian music, his struggles and his successful trip back in his book, “The Prodigal Comes Home: My Story of Failure and God’s Story of Redemption” — possesses a powerful, soulful voice that soars on songs like “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference” and the traditional spiritual “Swing Down Chariot.”
Throughout his career, the North Carolina native has found success on the Southern gospel, pop and contemporary Christian charts. Listen to him lead the way on his signature song “I Bowed on My Knees (and Cried Holy)” or “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted (to This World)” and it’s easy to see why. He delivers heartfelt performances of songs about second chances and God’s mercy.
A recent broken leg didn’t slow Lowry down. The singer/comedian kept the wisecracks coming throughout the evening — including an uproarious roll call of denominations — but showcased his serious side (and his songwriting ability) with a touching version of “Mary, Did You Know?”
With his amazing range, Phelps provided a classical touch to the group’s efforts, including a dramatic “He’s Alive” right before intermission.
It’s always great — and, yeah, inspiring and reassuring — to hear “Because He Lives.” Now a mainstay in church hymnals, it’s one Gaither wrote with his wife, Gloria, early in their careers. Joined by all the singers, he used it as an emotional finale to the evening.
Earlier in the show, “Excuse Me Are You Jesus” was a standout by the Nelons, the Isaacs delighted with “Why Can’t We,” McDonald displayed his deep, deep bass on “A Thing Called Love” and Ritchie shined on the old hymn “Down to the River to Pray.”