Rating: 5 stars
Producers: Bill Gaither, David Phelps, & Michael English
Label: Gaither Music Group
This project was purchased directly from the artist. This fact has no bearing on the final rating.
1. Better Day – The project starts off with a song that will be familiar to those who have seen the last DVD that the Vocal Band put out, as it was the title track. There are a few subtle differences in vocal arrangement and instrumentation from the live version, which make it more than just the studio version of a song that was previously introduced in a live setting. This track displays the smooth harmonies of the five-man lineup right up front and whets the listener’s appetite for the rest of the project, which makes it a good choice for an opener.
2. When He Blest My Soul - Like the previous track, this song was already featured on a DVD release. There’s added instrumentation here also, most notably the driving brass section that work with the organ and piano to inject energy into the song. The vocal arrangement is outstanding, most notably with David Phelps and Wes Hampton’s parts interchanging throughout the final chorus. While Gold City is the group that comes to my mind when this song is mentioned, the Vocal Band has a version that is just as good.
3. Love Like I’m Leavin’ – This is the third and final track that has already been introduced elsewhere. Nothing much differs between this take and the live one, but the studio version better highlights some of the vocal subtleties in the group harmonies.
4. You Are My All In All – In the first “new” song on the project, David Phelps’ arranging skills are brought to bear on this CCM classic. A cello brings in the start, and Pachelbel’s Canon in D is interwoven throughout the song with an acoustic guitar and violins. Phelps is featured on the verses, and keeps it pretty low-key for the most part before taking it up into classic power-tenor mode for the final chorus. Phelps’ arrangements are something the Vocal Band sorely missed, and this is a perfect example of why.
5. Please Forgive Me – This Crabb Family hit gets an orchestrated treatment and features Michael English. The emotion with which English sings is evident throughout the first verse and carries throughout the song. Some very smooth harmonies are sprinkled into the second verse, and then after the second chorus, an arpeggiated vocal lead-in brings in a powerful final chorus. This is one of the highlights of the disc, showcasing both the group’s power harmony and how much vocal strength English still has.
6. Greatly Blessed, Highly Favored – Right off the bat, you get the sensation you’ve heard this song before. That’s because, technically, you have. This Larry Gatlin and Bill Gaither cooperation takes the melody and rhythm of the Gatlin Brothers hit, “All The Gold In California” and changes the words to convey the message of being a “Greatly blessed, highly favored, imperfect but forgiven child of God.” Wes Hampton takes the solo on the verse, and while the song is a definite re-write of a popular country tune, it thankfully manages to avoid the cheesiness factor and stands on its own two feet.
7. He’s Alive - Fans of Don Francisco or owners of David Phelps’ rare pre-Gaither solo project, Journey To Grace, will recognize this track. David Phelps displays that he can tell a story with a lyric like few other singers can, and while the final chorus is half a step lower than his solo take, the wall of five voices give it extra punch, and his suspended high note is no less powerful.
8. Ain’t Nobody - This song displays one of the most unique sounds on the album. This Michael English feature features some very precise group harmonies to start out, with Bill Gaither singing half a beat in front of the group, making for an interesting sound. I can’t quite put my finger on how to describe this track, but funky would be the best term. It’s bouncy, progressive, and different.
9. Clean - David Phelps displays a smooth, soft delivery on this Bill Gaither & Larry Gatlin creation. Wes Hampton is above Phelps on the tenor line, giving the backup lines by the rest of the group a very full sound that really takes the track to the next level.
10. Muddy Water - It’s back to the funky, gritty sound on this one. English’s vocal riffs at the beginning are reminiscent of those of Guy Penrod on the title track of the group’s 2008 project, Lovin’ Life. Gordon Mote supplies some very nice piano riffs throughout, and Bill Gaither’s standout bass lines on the last lines of the choruses are probably the strongest on the project.
11. That Sounds Like Home To Me - This Goodman’s classic hasn’t been covered all that much, so this was a good choice for a song to update. The group gives it a swing feel and the vocals display a tight sound not unlike what you would find on a Booth Brothers project. Michael English takes the first verse (which is only fitting, since he was in the 1982 Goodmans group that sang the song), and Mark Lowry is featured on the second. David Phelps leads an almost-acapella final chorus before the instruments come back in on the last half and bring the song to a soft close.
12. I Know How To Say Thank You - Mark Lowry gets his first full feature on the album with this song that many may know from when it was sung on a Homecoming video by Sarah DeLane and Marshall Hall. Mark’s tones have become fuller and richer with time, and this is one of his finest performances to date. A powerful final chorus brings all five parts in before softening up again for a quiet finish.
13. He Is Here - Wes Hampton takes a song that Kirk Talley is well-known for writing and singing and puts his own spin on it. Wes was a good tenor when he first joined the Vocal Band, but has really come into his own in his time with the group, and even more so in the five-man lineup, and this track proves it. The soaring melody brings out probably his best solo feature in his tenure with the group. A subdued choir in the background closes out the project with a fadeout.
Final thoughts: The past couple of projects that the Gaither Vocal Band had recorded had many people, including this blogger, wondering if Bill Gaither was bringing in the twilight of the Vocal Band and planning to retire. Other than a couple decent songs, there just seemed to be something lacking in the music. A lineup change that led to an unprecedented five members in the Vocal Band and the return of Michael English, David Phelps, and Mark Lowry to the ranks injected new excitement in the group, and the sound was incredible. The first project by the new group, Reunited, was good, but it had people longing for the group to do something truly new.
Greatly Blessed is that something new. Every vocalist is at the top of their game here, and the song selection and arrangements hearken back to both the vocal prowess of Phelps’ days with the group and the creativity of both that era and English’s first run. Part of the beauty of having five people is hearing how the parts are structured on each song; Wes Hampton and David Phelps do their fair share of swapping the tenor part, which make for some interesting background harmonies on each song.
Bottom line: This Vocal Band’s first real product of new material is a breath of fresh air into their discography, as it gives the group a chance to explore with different styles and use the five vocal parts to create a unique sound. There is simply no reason that Greatly Blessed should not get 5 stars.