04/27/2016

"Like peanut butter and chocolate" From the inside, the SCC3D Tour"

 

 

By George Schroeder​​

PHOTO GALLERY

The rehearsal is running long. Time is running out. Everyone is running on fumes. Mac Powell is not running at all. He needs a nap – so right there on the stage, while the music is playing, he lies down. Steven Curtis Chapman and the guys from Third Day have been looking forward to this moment for a long time. Two legendary acts touring together as one – Third Day as Chapman’s backup band, Chapman as a quasi-member of Third Day, playing each other’s hits – is unusual anywhere, but it’s essentially unprecedented in Christian music, and they’re hoping the combination produces something uniquely special. But right now, two hours before showtime, the whole idea feels iffy. Excitement has been replaced by exhaustion. Anticipation has given way to trepidation. The concept that seemed so cool when they dreamed it up years ago in the back of a tour bus feels very different with the clock ticking toward 5 p.m. The concert begins at 7. “In four hours,” says Brent Milligan, Chapman’s producer and guitarist, “we’ll know – one way or another.” But in four hours – and for that matter, in the next four nights – it becomes clear: They’re on their way to producing something extraordinary. Even halfway through –  after a monumental show at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, the tour still has dates remaining in Atlanta and Dallas before finishing May 7 in Cincinnati – it’s apparent the concept is as cool in reality as it was when Powell, late one night while Third Day’s bus rolled down a highway, first watched that old concert footage of Bob Dylan playing with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and thought, “Man, I want to do that someday.” Or when he and Chapman first talked about the idea, agreeing that it should happen if they could ever get the logistics worked out. Steven Curtis Chapman and Third Day, Third Day and Steven Curtis Chapman. You pick the order, it really doesn’t matter, because the mash-up works just like Third Day guitarist Mark Lee suggested, a few days before the tour kicked off: “It’s gonna be like the peanut butter and chocolate thing.” Which is why they’ll look back forever at that moment in Little Rock before the first show, when Powell literally laid down on the job, and laugh together. Ever since, Chapman has given him a hard time. “Hey, I’m the old guy here,” he’s been telling Powell. “I’m the one that ought to be taking a nap and you’re the one lying down.” “It wasn’t so much in protest,” Powell says, “as it was just, ‘I can sing and lay down, so let me do that.’” But understand this much: “Mac was worn out,” says Third Day drummer David Carr. And the truth is, after two very long days of rehearsals, so was everybody. “That’s the most tired I’ve been from any kind of drumming activity in a long time,” Carr says. “My hands were worn down. The skin on my thumbs was raw from the drumsticks – which is a good thing. “It makes it that much more romantic to talk about how hard we worked for it. … We had to kind of earn it.” The payoff – for Chapman and Third Day, but really for anyone within earshot – is at least what they’d hoped it might be, and probably much more.

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Part of Chapman’s message each night, when he stops singing for a little while and talks to the audience, is to treasure the moments. And in the early days of the tour, that’s exactly what everyone involved seems to be doing. A concert, much less an entire tour, is designed to be a well-rehearsed, scripted event. But it is also organic, changing with the shape and sound of the room and the size and vibe from the crowd and the health and feel of the band and so many other moving parts that often cannot be predicted. Each date is different, producing something new to savor, either onstage or off. Given this tour’s unique nature, that’s especially true. Which is why it’s perhaps best measured in the moments.

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It’s Chapman, after the first show, telling Powell how much he loved the way “Cinderella” and “Glorious Unfolding” flowed so easily and fittingly into “Blessed Assurance” and “Cry Out to Jesus.” Earlier in the day, with the help of Third Day’s manager Lott Shudde and Chapman’s tour manager Harold Rubens, Powell and Chapman had laid index cards with song titles on the floor in the dressing room, then played with different sequences. The result was more than they’d expected. “This IS our story!” Chapman says, playing off the lyrics from “Blessed Assurance.” “It’s in all of those songs. It works so well and we didn’t set it up that way!”

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It’s getting something as simple as a “bop-bop” right, over and over – first with fear and then with fun. Especially for Third Day, the challenge of learning the intricacies of Chapman’s arrangements and the timing and phrasing of his lyrics has been difficult. “Bop-bop,” for example, is Chapman’s very technical term for a couple hard taps on the snare drum. Before the first show, as they’re rehearsing “Lord of the Dance,” he tells Carr that in the song’s second verse, as the first line ends – “A little boy full of wide-eyed wonder…” – “there’s this neat ‘bop-bop’ that really makes it sound cool.” A few hours later when Carr nails it, Chapman turns around and smiles. But Carr later admits: “I’d been thinking about it all day.” But by the third night, as the sequence approaches, Powell turns around and mimics the rhythm with his index fingers – and he and Carr both smile. At the end of the song, which is one of their favorites, Carr and bass guitarist Tim Gibson bump fists. “There’s this freshness to the show,” Carr says. “Obviously, there’s gonna be for us, having a whole other artist up there with us the whole night and playing his songs. It’s been challenging to learn them and play them as a band, but it’s been refreshing in a way.”

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It’s newfound freedom. After all the years as a front man, Chapman has enjoyed just playing as a band member on Third Day’s songs. As a guy who plays guitar on virtually every song, he sometimes feels pinned to the microphone. But when Powell is singing lead vocals, either on a Third Day song or the second verse of one of Chapman’s songs, Chapman bounces over to Third Day guitarists Lee or Trevor Morgan, or hops up on the risers with the others. “It’s a small thing,” he says, “but it’s really been energizing for me.”

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It’s the acoustic set midway through each concert, Chapman and Powell trading vocals with a medley of hits, the audience singing along on most of them. Or it’s the encore, when the band rocks to two of Chapman’s and Third Day’s biggest hits. But as much as the tour is for the fans – and it is – it has been a blast for the artists. They’ve reveled in playing the songs they’ve listened to and loved for years. Chapman likes how Third Day rolls through “Cry Out to Jesus” and “Miracle,” how the band rocks to “Revelation” – and he loves the huge sound of his song “The Great Adventure” with four electric guitars “just going for it.” Meanwhile, “Lord of the Dance” wasn’t on the song list Chapman sent over before the tour; the Third Day guys insisted, though, because with its guitar-driven sound, how could they not play it? “I love getting to play ‘Lord of the Dance,’” Chapman says, “with a great rock band who can just bring it.”

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And as much as the high-energy moments, it’s also the times when the show gets quiet and emotional. Each night before Chapman sings “Cinderella,” he explains why he wrote it years ago, when he realized his younger daughters were growing up quickly – “All too soon,” the song says, “the clock will strike midnight, and she’ll be gone” – and how its meaning changed after the death of his youngest daughter Maria in May 2008. On the first night of the tour, when the song begins, a man and his daughter move to the front of the auditorium and begin dancing together near the stage. When the song ends, he plants a kiss atop her head. A few moments later, Jim Whitmore says he and daughter Hannah, 12, have danced to the song countless times – though never during a concert. “We already had this song together,” he says. “Now we have a moment forever. It was just an opportunity to create a memory.” He’s not the only one. Although daddies dancing with daughters does not happen every night at Chapman’s shows, it’s not unusual. But several Third Day members weren’t quite ready for it. Playing guitar a few feet from the unexpected dance, Lee finds himself thinking of daughters Abbie, 12 and Kitty, 7, and struggling not to cry.  “That tore me up,” he says of Jim and Hannah dancing. “It’s so hard for me to play and to get through.” And it’s not only the first time out. Two nights later in Memphis, when the song ends, the crowd rises for a sustained standing ovation. And then, as each night before, Chapman begins singing “Glorious Unfolding,” with its message of hope – “there’s so much of the story that’s still yet to unfold…” Lee finds tears dropping on the set list “cheat sheet” taped to the floor. That transition, he says, is his favorite moment of the show. “I mean,” he says, “it’s just great.” But it’s also the hardest, for just about everyone. Which is why Powell doesn’t stick around. The father of three daughters realized during rehearsals that he couldn’t handle the sequence without crying – so he doesn’t try. Each night he leaves the stage during the song. “I can’t listen to it,” he says, “so I’m pretty sure I won’t hear that song on this tour.”

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While they’ve enjoyed the growing mesh onstage, the satisfaction is at least as much about the camaraderie, fellowship and flat-out fun elsewhere. It’s the humorous moments, like when Carr plays the live version of “The Great Adventure on his smartphone. In an attempt to amplify it for others, he puts the phone in a clear plastic cup. Someone asks him: “What’s that supposed to sound like?” Carr laughs: “It sounds like it’s playing in a cup.” Or at a barbecue joint in Jackson, Miss., when Powell buys lunch for Warren Barfield, who’s on tour representing Food for the Hungry. When Powell orders a three-meat combo, Barfield does the same. “That’ll be $70.35,” the cashier says – and everyone laughs.

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It’s late nights on the bus, when laughs and funny stories about shared connections sometimes give way to Chapman, at Powell’s request, telling of growing up and how he got into Christian music, all those years ago. They’ve been up very late the night before. Chapman insists he’s going to bed earlier this time around. But when Powell asks, he launches into a story that ends maybe 45 minutes later with a “to be continued.” Chapman starts essentially at birth, tells his salvation story and winds his way to Anderson College in Indiana – and doesn’t quite reach the point where he signs his first record deal. The bus’ front lounge is filled with band members hanging on every word. But now it’s 2:30 a.m. Chapman hits pause. They’ll have to wait for another night. But they know it’s coming soon.

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It’s Third Day keyboard player Scotty Wilbanks exulting that night to learn that Chapman, in addition to his own songs, wrote several songs sung by Christian artists like the Imperials and Sandi Patty. It’s Powell sharing how each night on stage he can’t help but think to himself: “That’s Steven Curtis Chapman with us!” It’s Carr saying he grew up listening to Chapman (“I devoured his music,” he says). It’s Powell and Lee recalling a concert they attended back in the early 1990s at Six Flags Over Georgia, watching Chapman and thinking: “We want to do that someday.” “And now 20-something years later, not only am I doing it, I’m up there playing that same song with Steven,” Lee says. “I mean, it’s just amazing. It’s a real blessing.”  During dinner one night, Chapman asks Powell if he recalls listening to “The Great Adventure” album when it was released in 1992. Powell tells him he does – “but I didn’t go into detail how I listened to it about a million times,” he says, “and that we would listen to it in the car together all the time driving to gigs and stuff.” This is why Powell says there’s no way Chapman could possibly feel the same way about playing with Third Day that the Third Day members feel about playing with him. Chapman refers to them as “little brothers.” “The little brother is always gonna look up to the big brother,” Powell says. “So even though the big brother can be proud of the little brother, it’s never gonna be the same.” 

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It’s the pre-show devotions with Nigel James, Third Day’s longtime tour pastor (who jokes sometimes onstage that the band members are so bad, they need a tour pastor, but says “Actually, it’s the opposite; they’re Godly men”), those daily reminders of the faith they share and why they’re here. On the first few nights, James takes them deep into the first few verses from Genesis 1 (“God made us in His image!” James says. “What confidence does that give us? What privilege? What responsibility?”). On the fourth night, he teaches from Luke on Jesus’ death and resurrection (when he reads Luke 24:46, “… Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead on the third day…” he pauses, smiles, and says, “I tried my hardest to find a passage of Scripture referring to Steven Curtis Chapman, but I couldn’t.”) “We all are called to be witnesses of the resurrection power,” James says. “We can live our life as if we’re the star of our own little show, as if it revolves around us. But what’s more fulfilling than that – I don’t care what part I play – is if I’m stepping into God’s purpose. And then James prays they would be effective messengers, both during the concert and elsewhere. They pray for each other. They pray for the audience members. They ask for help in playing well, but above all, they ask that God would be glorified. “This is us,” James says. “It’s not rocket science. We just open the Word. We have a daily practice of opening the Bible and praying together.”

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It’s after the show in Memphis, when the band goes out together for a late meal. While they’re waiting to be seated outside a restaurant on the corner of Beale Street, a homeless man wanders up and begins talking with – or really, at – Brent Milligan. Brent listens, and then he begins talking softly with the man. And several minutes later, he prays with him: “God, would you bring someone along to take a chance on him …”

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Somewhere in all of those moments, and in so many more, they recognize that the frenzy and the frustration and even the fear – how will this go? – during those rehearsals before the first show has given way to something else. That something more than they’d planned might be happening. “If we kind of temper the expectations,” Lee says, “and just go, ‘Man this is really special – we’re up here on stage (together),’ it’s a really neat thing to be a part of. It’s a lot of fun.” And if no one is exactly sure what is unfolding, they’re certain it is extraordinary. The show is not perfect – but it might be better. Which is why even as the tour rolls on, they wonder:  “Can I just do this forever now?” Chapman asks. “Can it just be Third Day and Steven Curtis for good now? Do we have to break this thing up?” And Powell adds: “Who knows? Maybe we get a chance down the road to do it again?”

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