O.C. POP REVIEW : Search for Spirituality Stalls in Abstractions, Loud Intensity
The Call and its leader, Michael Been, are trying to accomplish something uncommonly ambitious with rock.
Dealing from a Christian Everyman perspective (as opposed to the prophet/messiah pose of a Bono Hewson), Been explores some of the deepest, most thought-provoking issues of religious belief and spirituality. The Call’s undogmatic songs are about yearning for connection with the divine and suffering doubts that one’s store of faith and righteousness aren’t sufficient. Belief, for Been, confers the hopefulness that allows one to keep on striving for a sense of grace--even while realizing that grace is ephemeral, and gives way inevitably to a new cycle of doubt and near-despair.
The problem, evident from the Call’s show Tuesday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, is that it is tackling the biggest subject of all with a relatively limited expressive range. Whether playing an uplifting anthem, a yearning hymn, or a dark and stormy song about failures or quests, Been and company went for big drama and big dynamics in their music. Been’s lyrics, meanwhile, were full of broad concepts, symbols and abstractions.
Missing was the storytelling ability that one finds in the work of rock’s best spiritually oriented songwriters (such as Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Van Morrison), and in the Bible itself. In his quest for The Word, Been fails to deploy humbler words, strung together in a tale, that might bring ultimate concepts down to earth and into more involving focus.
An earthier kind of music-making also could help. The Call’s 90-minute set was well executed (although the band rarely added anything new to recorded versions of songs), and Been’s singing was strong and dramatic without lapsing into bombast. But the show’s constant grand scale, even in the quieter, hymnal numbers, led to a sense of sameness.
By now, Tracy Chapman and Cowboy Junkies have made the pop world safe for a quieter, more intimate kind of intensity. The Call would do well to explore it and to keep in mind that an album like Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding,” the standard-setter for spiritual exploration in rock, was built around playing that was humble and folksy. It also had its moments of humor, something that, unfortunately, appears to be beyond the Call’s ken.
While the stocky, bearded Been looked approachable in his jeans and untucked shirt, he turned out to be remote. Yes, the music speaks for itself, but it’s only natural for a listener to want to hear some talk between songs, in order to connect a bit more closely to the spiritual searcher on stage. Been confined himself to an occasional “thank you very much” between songs and a “God bless you” at the end.
The show had its highlights, notably the celebratory “Let the Day Begin.” The full-house audience was obviously enraptured by most of what the Call played. It was a solid-enough performance, but solid is a disappointment when the music’s goal is to bring spiritual experience to life.