The cool thing growing up the son of a disc jockey was connecting with him through the radio as he spun the great tunes from the seminal period 1967-76. By the time I came of age my musical sensibilities were set in stone — hence, the ’80s were a downer for me while the ’90s marked something of a return to form.
In the summer of ’96 I bought a copy of Speak by Dogs of Peace, what was thought to be a one-off from a foursome of Nashville session players: Gordon Kennedy (guitar, vocals), Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass, vocals), Blair Masters (keyboards, bgv’s), and John Hammond on drums. I won’t take the space here list the luminaries these guys have played with or for, or produced. They’re musicians’ musicians, so unsurprisingly Speak was easily among the highlights of the decade.
My best buddy and former workmate is himself a guitarist with gigging and recording experience. I would bring my cassette copy of Speak and we would blast it in the car while working. We analyzed it. We argued its technical details. We caught its reference points: Wings, Pink Floyd, James Gang, Hendrix, among others. He was able to break down Kennedy’s guitar leads and explain how he achieved certain tones, as on “Do You Know,” whose twin solos match the aching grandeur of Gilmour on “Comfortably Numb.”
Unwinding from the day I’d go down to the basement and play it again, having sent my daughters (13 and 11 at the time) to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were listening, too. Especially to “Thrown Away” — they loved that track. It spoke to them at those transitional ages. Proud of those gals for their good musical tastes. Chips off the old block.
But things change over twenty years. I confess I’m lost when it comes to today’s hipster music. No offense, but I don’t get what’s so enthralling about ukuleles, glockenspiels, dead-pan lead vocals and wordless choruses that go,
oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….
[probably the generation that grew up watching Arthur and caught that episode about the Finnish hologram band, BINKY]
Anyway, it’s a relief that Dogs of Peace weren’t an one-off after all. After twenty years of doing myriad other things the group reformed and released Heel in April of this year. The cover art and title allude to the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15: God curses the serpent for his deceit and promises that the “seed of the woman,” i.e. the virgin-born son, would crush the serpent’s head (check out the bonus track, “Crush”) — though the serpent would manage to inflict a deadly wound to his heel.
The title also plays on the “dog” metaphor.
Heel is arranged in three sets of three songs, with a closing medley/postlude. The opening tracks come out of the blocks big and bold: detonating drums, swirling strings, muscular riffs. They combine a snarling guitar tone a la Jimmy Page with an expanding, boiling thunderhead of a sound reminiscent of Kerry Livgren’s arrangements. While the most bombastic of the album, these songs establish a more chiseled, classic rock sound than the alt edge of the first record. They also introduce recurring themes: intercession (“One Flight Away”), interposition (“Sacrifice”), and light/darkness:
Looking at the painting of Van Gogh’s Starry Night / with a brush he paints a riddle / a church in the middle, but somebody’s turned out the light… (“Dark Without”)
The second trio of songs finds the band broadening the scope, shifting between moods while infusing the music with their characteristic humor. “All This For a Piece of Fruit” winsomely plays on the fall of human nature — with more than a enough cowbell to fill Bruce Dickinson’s prescription. And a few of those previously unnamed luminaries begin to show up: Ricky Skaggs showcases his mandolin on “Only the Gold,” but this isn’t a salute to Dr. Ralph Stanley (deserving as he is). Rather, Steely Dan-tight harmonies punch through an Alan Parsons “I Robot” soundscape at breakneck pace. Skagg’s mandolin solo is sublime beyond words.
Speaking of Steely Dan, piano ace Michael Omartian makes his cameo as the album transitions into the third section, opening with one of the its best tracks, “Friend of the Groom.” A jocose nod to John 3:29, this is straight-up Southern rock more stout than a pot of black coffee. Fat guitar, funky bass, and Omartian’s boogie piano create conditions for a heavy foot on the gas pedal. You can tell the band is into it: at the intro to the second verse one voice says “Yep” while another answers “Right.”
Shifting gears, the elegant “Healed” is graced with a poignant guitar solo from guest Peter Frampton. It’s a meditation on what mortality has been transformed into for believers: we might not leave this present cosmos cured, but we can assuredly leave it healed. More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, another confession: I’m not into praise and worship music. Visiting churches that use this style I’m the guy hands-in-pockets staring at the screen while everyone else is enraptured, eyes closed, singing the lines from memory. But if the songs were more like “He’s the Light of the Word” I might get into it. No congregation could sing at this level, but I could envision a tastefully scaled-down version making the rounds in churches. Whiteheart’s Rick Florian, PFR’s Joel Hanson, and the McCrary Sisters join in to create a gospel choir for a rousing outro. Following a change of key one of the McCrary’s begins to sing and Sloas hits a booming note on his bass that makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle.
The final verse declares:
Jesus, he is matchless / see the wounds of God’s wrath / Brilliant in the chaos / illuminating my path…
A deeply held evangelical conviction is that Christ’s death deflects God’s wrath for sin away from those who believe in him, i.e. substitutionary atonement. This idea, based on passages like Isaiah 53:4-8 and the reflections of St. Anselm and John Calvin, has in more recent times fallen out of favor, giving way to Christus Victor and other plausible theories of the efficacy of his death. But we’re talking about Christ’s death, a matter of cosmic weight. I agree with most of these models — including the sinner’s substitute idea.
I was recently queried about this by some hipsters.
“Why, yes,” I responded. “I do happen to believe in it.”
Their smiles faded. I could see the look in their eyes: Old guy holding to a 15th century heresy. Everybody keep cool, keep smiling, and wave your hands…
oohhhh-wayyy-oohhh, oh-oh way-ay, oh-oh-whoah….
Yeah, whatever. Like I said, some things change over twenty years.
In the time that’s passed since 1996 I’ve added three more children to my quiver. A job change in 2012 separated me from my guitar-playing sidekick and the daily camaraderie we enjoyed. My dad developed Alzheimer’s. Two winters ago his condition took a decisive turn for the worse. Around that time one of my daughters — the one who was 11 when Speak came out — gave birth to a second grandchild, a baby girl, via c-section. A couple of days later my gal started hemorrhaging. The bleeding was out of control; she faded in and out as doctor’s struggled to stabilize her condition.
It’s a drama played out thousands of times a day in hospitals, nursing homes, accident scenes, battlefields and other scenes across the globe. We who stand by and watch and pray ask ourselves: Did I say and do all the right things?
Helplessness isn’t the right word. Irrelevance is probably closer. Because whether loved ones pass through the dark valley or come back out of it, only the Shepherd can go with them, lighting the way.
Against all instinct and understanding, this is the point where the dog must heel. And stay. And wait as the Master does his inscrutable work.
Turns out my daughter was raised up from her sickbed. Dad we later laid to rest — until the resurrection. One cured, the other healed. But the same Shepherd over both…
So how do the Dogs bring this gem of an album home? The finale is a dramatic, Abbey Road-like medley expanding the “light of the world” motif.
“Light into the Darkness,” which Kennedy and Masters built around a Sloas bass line, reminds us that having engaged his seemingly chaotic creation the Artist will not abandon it. This, incidentally, is at the very heart of God’s righteousness. “He can work with this,” we are assured.
Our response, our vocation is to shine (“Shine Dog”), not hiding this light under our bowls. But lest we get carried away in our endeavors, we’re drawn back to a be still moment: “3:16,” from John’s gospel, the most recognized and quoted verse in the Bible, brought to remembrance.
Heel closes with a slide guitar instrumental of “Amazing Grace.”
Hmm. Nothing I can add to that besides, “listen to the record.” Maybe they’ll do another — maybe Fetch, or something like that (though, at this rate of output I’m not sure I’ll be around for it). Either way, Dogs of Peace have left us with a pair of brilliantly conceived and finely crafted artifacts that point restive hearts toward home.