Our Easter Soundtrack

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Most families will start playing their favorite Christmas music starting Thanksgiving on through Christmas Day. But what about Easter? Christmas gets all the press, but the older I’ve gotten (meaning the less I care about the presents!) the more I’ve come to love Easter as possibly the more substantive holiday. There are fewer Easter albums to choose from (unlike Christmas with baby Jesus meek and mild, it’s much harder to sentimentalize Easter’s story of Christ’s victory by way of a brutal death by execution), but there is one that the Gray family returns to every year with gratitude: At The Foot Of The Cross: Volumes 1 (Clouds, Rain, Fire) and 2 (The Seven Last Words Of Christ).

If it’s true that it seems the best albums never get the attention they deserve, it’s also true to say that most of them have a longer shelf life. In the early 90’s Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty of The Choir set out to create a unique and modern worship project for Easter. Grossly overlooked at the time, it still sounds as fresh and adventurous today as it did back then. In fact, in a market where much of worship music has become increasingly saccharine, this record sounds all the more adventurous and true. At the foot of the cross is imbued with the dark mystery of it’s subject matter and is an evocative musical meditation on the Easter journey from Good Friday through Easter morning with respect to both liturgical and modern pop/rock music conventions.

Fans of Andrew Peterson may remember that Steve Hindalong produced his Love & Thunder record as well as the City On A Hill series. But before that he was a member of the seminal alternative band The Choir from the late 80’s and early 90’s. All the moodiness and vibe that they honed as The Choir is put to good use here on the Easter records. The first of the two, Clouds Rain Fire, was released in 1991 and features performances by an eclectic cross section of artists like Phil Keaggy, Mike Roe, Buddy & Julie Miller, Victoria Williams, Bob Bennett and what may have been Mark Heard’s final recording – his rendition of “I Know My Redeemer Lives” is a gem. The album also featured one of Hindalong & Daugherty’s best songs, “Beautiful Scandalous Night” (later re-recorded for the City On A Hill series by Leigh Nash of Sixpence None The Richer, but never quite as moving as the original.)

Volume 1 begins with the lyric: “The dust of your feet, clouds are the dust of your feet… You cover light with clouds… fire is the chariot you ride…you sleigh the night with fire.” This is set against a backdrop of lush orchestration, haunting electric guitars and ethereal percussion. Many of the albums meditations feature similar lyrics (like: “Clouds are round about you, shadows veil your eyes…”) that create a sense of deep mystery, giving us a context for our worship. Interspersed throughout are liturgical selections in Latin with organ and orchestral accompaniments that compliment the atmospheric qualities of the production. These days, it’s not hard to find a church that is trying to incorporate a service with a post modern aesthetic where they light candles, burn incense, and dress up the sanctuary with artsy accouterments to give the setting a certain vibe, but long before any of this was considered relevant, Hindalong and company were making music that could be the soundtrack to the best of these kinds of services. But whereas many postmodern services can feel a little contrived, the music of At The Foot Of The Cross felt like the real thing – full of vibe ‘o plenty but without the pretense. The desire to honor the mystery of God revealed in Easter comes through on every track – in the music, the lyric, and the performances. The album was a modern worship masterpiece, but like many great works was less than a commercial success.

At The Foot Of The Cross Volume 2: The Seven Last Words Of Christ was released a few years later and was even more focused than Volume 1. Without feeling compromised, it seemed decidedly more commercial featuring higher profile CCM artists like Charlie Peacock, Bryan Duncan, and Babbie Mason as well as Julie Miller and Gene Eugene. I’d never heard an album that sounded as good as this one and I remember bringing it to the guy who was producing my first record to use as a reference. The producer was an unbeliever and didn’t like most of the Christian CDs I played for him, but he would ask me to play this record over and over again and he would listen, mesmerized by the beauty of it.

Volume 2 explores the seven last utterances of Christ from the cross in chronological order, leading us through a meditation of Good Friday with a song dedicated to each of the seven sayings as well as response pieces. One of the most beautiful tracks I’ve ever heard is “The Winds Are Not The Same” with it’s otherworldly percussion, hammered dulcimer, and Irish flute. It’s a track, I discovered, that Hindalong himself is proud of – when I singled it out in a recent conversation with him he was grateful, saying that I was the only person he could remember who commented specifically about that track and that he himself had always been fond of it. The song closes with a reprise of Mark Heard‘s “I Know My Redeemer Lives” in honor of his passing. It makes me cry nearly every time.

Musically adventurous, these records fused modern pop/rock, gospel, and folk with celtic and classical influences and featured some of my favorite orchestration I’ve ever heard. As a whole, it transcends the times in which it was made. City On A Hill would later become a bigger success – no small feat considering it’s a worship album that combined artistry, community, and commercial viability – but for my money, his greatest achievement as a producer is At The Foot Of The Cross.

I was talking with him about this recently, naming the big blockbuster Christian albums of the time (I won’t name names here). They may have sold hundreds of thousands of copies at the time, but so few people care about or reference them anymore. They were disposable. Steve told me he still gets people who seek him out to tell him how much the At The Foot Of The Cross records mean to them. And that’s because, I suspect, that the ultimate motivation for these records wasn’t only commercial success. For that matter, I doubt they were created with any kind of agenda of making some progressive musical or artistic statement, either. It sounds like they made a record of Easter music that they would like to listen to, and we get to eavesdrop. It’s clear these records were a labor of love, created to testify to the glory, mystery, and hope of Christ’s death and resurrection.

And they are the soundtrack to the Easter season in the Gray household.

These records are long out of print, but there are still ways to get them. The best way is to download them (for a great price!) from http://www.thechoirdownloads.com/

Also, you can usually find used copies floating around on the net.


15 Comments

  1. Jesse Gray

    Thank you again, Jason! I just downloaded both of them and they are amazing. I’m looking forward to playing them for my family this weekend.

    That’s 2 picks of yours that I have fallen in love with that I probably never would have found on my own (Daniel Lanois being the other). Good stuff – thanks, man. We MUST be related!

  2. Tony Heringer

    Jason – Thanks for the post. Great price indeed! I downloaded both albums and I am sure we here at the Heringer home will join the Grays in our enjoyment of them. I’ve also used Michael Card’s “The Life” and the classic Handel’s “Messiah.” “Messiah” is performed a lot at Christmas but I feel it is more appropriate to Easter.

    As for seasons, for me it is not just Christmas vs. Easter, it is the whole liturgical year that we need to explore. I probably feel this way because I didn’t grow up with a “high church” tradition. So, I’ve found the seasons of the church calendar (from Advent through the Lenten season and beyond) a great value as we move and breath in this post-Christian culture. For me it is a way to “redeem the time” in keeping with Ephesians 5:16. A resource I often use for background and reflection on the church year is this one: http://www.cresourcei.org/chyear.html

    Along those lines, what other mediums do you all find helpful during this season? I’ve used films such as the visual Bible version of The Gospel of Matthew or The Gospel of John (featuring Lost’s Henry Ian Cusick), The Passion of Christ, etc.? Tonight we may explore an art exhibit called “stations” (http://www.stationsjourney.com/) which is billed as “Artists honoring Christ’s journey through individual expression…”

  3. Matt Conner

    @mattconner

    Man, i have volume 2 sitting around here somewhere. I haven’t even thought of that album in a decade, I’m sure… I’ll have to pull it out.

  4. klampert

    2 of the greatest CD’s of all time and from the best christian band of all time…
    Im doing the song paradise at my good friday service..

    as good as these CD’s are it was even more amazing live at cornerstone

  5. Jason Gray

    @jasongray

    In response to Tony – thanks for the link and reminding us how beneficial it can be to pay attention to the liturgical calendar.

    We were a little lazy this year for Easter, just laid low and kept it low key, but we try to actively observe lent each year and each of us, including our boys, examines our hearts for something that has too much of our attention and give it up for the season of lent (One year, Taya, my wife, gave up speeding!) We’ve also done seder meals for passover and invited friends over for that. Sometimes we read a book as a family that we can discuss as a tie in to Easter – like last year it was “The Book Of The Dun Cow” – which though it is not necessarily an Easter story has an epic narrative of good and evil and self-sacrifice that lend itself well to talking about Christ’s sacrifice and victory.

    But I hope to be more pro-active and adventurous in our Easter season observances next year. We are going to a church in Minneapolis tonight that has always had a really great Good Friday service. In fact, a lot of the music they have traditionally used is from the At The Foot Of The Cross records.

    Thanks for asking Tony! I wish I was doing what you were doing tonight!

    JG

  6. Peter Eason

    Thanks so much for this Jason. it’s amazing to me to find other people who not only know of these albums and artists , but cherish them as much as I do. The timing of your comments is also quite something to me as I was supposed to be at our community Good Friday service this morning . However , due to a flu/cold that has left me feeling miserable and sorry for myself I wound up staying home and pulling out my cd copy of “At the Foot of the Cross Vol. 2” listening to it and worshiping my wonderful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I too have always found the track you mentioned (that finishes with Mark’s almost angry yet passionate voice singing “I know that my Redeemer lives”) deeply moving and powerful. The other track that stands out for me , even though they are all terrific , is the first vocal track ” Forgive me ” featuring Julie Miller ( oh how I love Buddy and Julie !! ) , the late Gene Eugene , and David Mullen. God has met me ( or I’ve met Him ! ) so often in the music/lyrics of gifted yet humble artists whose art and lives so beautifully and genuinely mirror my own longings as well as struggles ( I also found myself listening this morning to Michael Card singing Andrew Petersen’s incredible song “The Silence of God” ). Thanks for also providing a link to where I can obtain Vol.1 of A.T.F.O.T.C. , I’ve wanted for years to find a copy !! God bless and keep you and your loved one’s always His.

    Peter Eason

  7. TulipGirl

    Like you said, these two albums “testify to the glory, mystery, and hope of Christ’s death and resurrection”. I was at the worship and communion service at c-stone in the early 90s with atfotc as the liturgy, and the music continues to lead my soul to worship.

  8. Joy C

    Thank you! I was wishing last night for some deep, articulate new (to me) music about Christ. I just downloaded these albums!

  9. Billy Marsh

    Jason, thanks for mentioning this album as a good Easter soundtrack. I bought a few years ago in a Christian bookstore on the bargain rack for about $1.99. That’s usually where you find the good stuff anyway. I loved Vol. 1, but I don’t own Vol. 2. My favorites are “When the Sun Fades,” “Teach Us To Love You,” and “Peace”. You can always count on the guys from The Choir to make oustanding music with a creative and meaningful bent that reflects a love for God, his Word, and his Church.

  10. Tony Heringer

    Jason – I’ve been listening to this entire collection since last week and a lot for a couple of days now. As a software guy, I really enjoy having great music going while doing certain parts of my job. This was a two day span that allowed for that and this is some really great music.

    The two songs that have stuck out for me amongst the many gems are Sanctified and Paradise. The former for its three part harmony and great sound just a fun and hopeful tune. The latter for its exposition of the exchange between Jesus and the thief which becomes symbolic for the rest of us sinners.

    The only thing I miss here is lyrics which I see as the biggest downside to digital music. When I’m listening in this type of listening mode, lines will jump out and I like have the songs lyrics there to ruminate on. Plus, with hard media there is great value in the art that accompanies the music — it extends and enhances the listening experience. Lyrics, liner note, etc. they are not just fluff and as we move into the digital age, I hope there is still some investment in this part of the product.

    For example, I know the song My Redeemer Lives because Bob Bennett did a version of it. At any rate, there is a line in that song where I’d always thought the line was “He grants me daily bread”, but this version makes it claer that I’m dense and that the line is “He grants me daily breath” which makes sense in context with the next line in the song. But, finding the lyrics for this song? My usual google search didn’t yeild much other than the ubiquitous “no lyrics available” 🙁 Artist websites sometimes contain this information, but alas for this collection, this ingredient is missing.

    I have a City on the Hill Christmas CD and I can hear the marks of the production team on that collection that are evident here. A certain production quality that is timeless or classic vs. contemporary. This music holds up really well. Thanks again for the recommendation and inspiration.

  11. Gary K

    I listen to Vol. 2 (Seven Last Words of Christ) every Good Friday, it’s my tradition to honor and worship my Lord by myself. I love worshiping with my family and other Christians, but also look forward to this every year. Thank God for Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong for putting the project together and beautifully matching the singers with the songs. If you don’t have it yet, you can download it at:

    Peace!

  12. Tony Heringer

    Gary K. In honor of your tradition, I’m listening to this collection today. I’ve got Volumes 1 and 2 together, so they just play all the way through. My favorite song continues to be Sanctified on Volume 1.

    Great tunes for this Good Friday!

    He is risen!

  13. Miss Linda

    How exciting! I found At the Foot of the Cross vol. 1 at a yard sale this morning and bought it based on a vague recognition of the names “Hindalong” and “Daugherty.” I still have no idea what it sounds like because I haven’t had time to listen to it. I did look the liner notes and thought they looked fascinating because of the blending of “old” and “new” flavors of worship. After I got home I thought I remembered someone here talking about this CD, so after a quick search I find out that my “I don’t know if I ought to be buying this, I really don’t need it” yard sale purchase comes well recommended. How fun! Now I just need to go listen to it.

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