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John Wilson


"The Stock of Available Reality"

A report on Calvin's Festival of Faith & Music

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Last week, Wendy and I traveled to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the 2011 edition of the Festival of Faith & Music, which alternates with the more venerable Festival of Faith & Writing (coming up next in April 2012). Headlined by concerts featuring Matisyahu, Shara Worden/My Brightest Diamond, The Civil Wars, Jon Foreman (of Switchfoot and Fiction Family), and Vienna Teng (a polymathic young songwriter and pianist), complemented by offsite music on Saturday, the program also included time for worship, outstanding plenary lectures by Greg Wolfe (editor of Image) and Luke Powery (of Princeton Theological Seminary, who sang—and led the audience in singing—to accompany and embody what he said about the "unknown black bards" who wrote the Negro spirituals), and a wide range of concurrent "workshop" sessions.

Combine all that with the chance to connect with old friends and make new ones, and you have an event that lives up to the name of "festival." On Saturday, in that festive spirit, Wendy and I paid our first visit to a Grand Rapids institution, Yesterdog, then went next door to 76 Coffee, where the whiteboard includes a list of "boring drinks" (including the one I ordered, an iced latté) and then, in another category, some more idiosyncratic specialties of the house, including one called "The Most Awesome Satan." Ah, the banality of evil. For five minutes, we were back in Berkeley in the summer of 1967. (My latté was good, by the way: nice and strong.)

Greg Wolfe's Friday morning talk, "Thirty Seconds Away: On Learning to Be Human," ranged easily from the Church Fathers to Graham Greene's whiskey priest, taking as its point of departure a striking phrase from Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive." Greg had many of us reaching for our notebooks, especially when he spoke of the artist's ability to add to "the stock of available reality." Sounded like Hugh Kenner to me, but it turns out to be from a piece by R. P. Blackmur, written in 1935. Credit Jon Foreman for tracking it down via Google; later, in an onstage conversation, he and David Dark talked about what adding to the stock of available reality might mean.

Most of the headliners are masters of irony, pastiche, and appropriation. Matisyahu, born Matthew Paul Miller, is a hip hop hasid, a rasta rebbe. Tall, slender, slouched on a stool, his face framed by sidelocks, he worked the college crowd like a standup comic (joking about being on the road for days, too tired to shower), then launched a song built on a verse from the Psalms. The strongest number he and his two bandmates delivered was a stirring Bob Marley cover.

Shara Worden opened the festival with a loosely structured talk, copiously illustrated with images. She paid sweet tribute to her grandfather, a revivalist and interim pastor, and her father, a music minister who brought home music of all kinds from the public library (cue the image of an early Prince LP). From this generous mix she traced the emergence of her own eclectic identity as a singer, songwriter, and unclassifiable multimedia collaborator: the figure we saw in action (after Matisyahu) as My Brightest Diamond, picking up a new guitar or a banjo as she moved from song to song, and with each instrument donning a new identity, effortlessly miming another musical idiom. We had been prepared for this virtuoso shape-shifting by her talk, when she channeled a variety of voices.

Whereas Matisyahu and My Brightest Diamond are well established in their distinctive realms, The Civil Wars—a duo made up by Joy Williams and John Paul White, whose voices seem to have been expressly created for this purpose—are rising just now. Their first full-length CD, Barton Hollow, was released in February, and Williams said during their set that this was the biggest venue they'd played so far. They are brilliant appropriators too, a bit in the vein of Gillian Welch, but their onstage personas are quite different from the manner of Welch and her partner, David Rawlings. Now and then, in conjunction with the music, they stage an off-and-on theater of playful desire, along with sparks of equally playful conflict. When Williams sashays close to White, you'd swear they were married to each other, but in fact they are playing their parts (think of the star couple in one of Shakespeare's more romantic comedies). It looks like a difficult dance to sustain. For their second and final encore, they unplugged everything and did their ravishing cover of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of the Love." This was a concert we'll remember years from now (if we haven't lost our faculties by then).

Vienna Teng, who concluded the festival though Jon Foreman was the evening's headliner, approached the piano with the confident lope of a pole-vaulter. According to the program notes, she was a prodigy who began composing at the age of six, though she hasn't stuck unwaveringly to music in the interim. She likes to play with sounds, capturing them even as she is performing and then incorporating them into the piece. I found her music a bit chilly—art songs from the lab—but clearly others in the audience were on her wavelength.

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