Glass Hammer, Live at Belmont (Arion/Sound Resources, 2006). 2-disc DVD.
Tracks, Disk 1: Long and Long Ago; One King; Run Lissette; Farewell to Shadowlands; Through the Glass Darkly; Knight of the North; When We Were Young; Having Caught a Glimpse; and Heroes and Dragons.
Tracks, Disk 2: Tales of the Great Wars; and Lirazel. Five additional items: documentaries, slides, etc.
Glass Hammer, 2005: Steve Babb; Susie Bogdanowicz; Carl Groves; Fred Schendel; Matt Mendians; David Wallimann; Eric Parker; Bethany Warren; and Flo Paris.
For a band that specializes in studio magic and technological prowess, Glass Hammer performs astonishingly well in a live setting. This year’s DOUBLE LIVE intrigued me so much and proved itself so wonderful and extraordinary as an original release—in a year during which the prog scene has simply exploded beyond any serious quantification—that I had to go back through all of the band’s previous releases.
Having been around, officially since 1993 and, unofficially, a bit longer, the band has released three live albums—LIVE AND REVIVED (1997), LIVE AT NEARFEST (2004), and DOUBLE LIVE(2015). It has also released four live videos—LEX LIVE (2004); LIVE AT BELMONT (2006); LIVE AT THE TIVOLI (2008); and DOUBLE LIVE (2015).
As 2015 comes to a close, it seems appropriate to go back to Glass Hammer’s concert performed at Belmont University during Professor Amy Sturgis’s massive conference honoring the fiction of C.S. Lewis, “Past Watchful Dragons,” in November 2005.
I’ve never hidden my love of everything Glass Hammer related. They are, to my mind, the premiere prog band of the American third wave, the grand statesmen of the scene, having carried the flag and pioneered the form for nearly a quarter of a century now. They’re never afraid to innovate, and they’re equally willing to embrace or to challenge custom and convention. I have a sneaking suspicious that every time a reviewer somewhat dismissingly notes the Yes influence on the band, Babb and Schendel throw in something extraordinarily Yes-ish an the next album just to be mischievous and to tweak, rather playfully, the distractors.
The band also knows how to recruit incredible talent and, even more importantly, how to cultivate that talent. Really, just listen to the angelic voice of Susie Bogdanowicz, the sheer drumming prowess of Aaron Raulston, the confidence of Carl Groves (no stranger to fronting a band), and the smooth and expert glow of Kamran Alan Shikoh’s guitar. Yet, it’s always Babb and Schendel conducting, organizing, and orchestrating, who so ably and brilliantly prove to be the pillars that uphold the Glass Hammer universe.
Jump back ten years, then, to that late autumn performance at Belmont College. Babb and Schendel, of course, hold it all together. But, there’s Susie (looking and sounding amazing), and, for the first time, there’s Carl Groves. Also, for the firs ttime, there’s electric guitarist David Wallimann and Eric Parker on acoustic and steel guitar. Matt Mendians is drumming, and Susie’s sister, Bethany, and Flo Paris add to the vocals. We can’t stop here, though. There is also a string trio, the Adonia, performing with Glass Hammer. Still not content to stop here (I’m telling you, Babb and Schendel never take the easy route. NEVER!), Belmont University’s 150-member choir join for the second half of the concert. Even writing this is taking my breath away. This was a HUGE production.
Despite all of this pressure and enormousness, Babb, Schendel, and Bogdanowicz look as if they’re having the time of their lives. In the minds of these three, this is just a really, really, really big studio in which they get one take. And, the university president, many of the students, faculty, and staff, and Glass Hammer fans from around the world have come to watch this one take in the studio. No pressure.
And yet, whatever pressure the band felt, they reveal nothing but grace.
In preparation of this piece, I asked my friend (yes, I’m proud of this friendship), Steve Babb, if he wanted to comment on the night. My plan was to integrate what he said—in journalistic fashion—into this reminiscence. But, once again, Steve does nothing halfway, and I was so taken with what he wrote me that I’ve decided to print it as a whole. It’s a document that should be preserved for the years. Here’s what Steve wrote me:
Carl Groves was drafted to be an auxiliary keyboardist with Glass Hammer, and of course we’d asked Salem Hill to open for us. Just a few weeks before the show Walter Moore made his exit and Carl was suddenly in the front-man position. This situation went back and forth for a short time, and Carl probably felt like a ping pong ball. About two weeks before show time, he was again moved to the front man spot and just barely had time to rehearse with the band and learn the lyrics. It was a crazy, stressful time for everyone, but we knew we were heading toward something special so everyone pulled together.
We had worked with choirs before at NEARfest 2003, but Belmont represented an opportunity to work with some of the nation’s best singers. There were probably around 100 or slightly more involved. There are always technical difficulties when trying to mic a vocal group and get them loud enough to be discernible over a loud rock band. Belmont was no different. The monitor mix crew left in the middle of the sound check and never addressed the issues the choir had. Neither the choir nor the director could really hear what was going on!
We later found the monitor crew unapologetically eating the band’s lunch in the hospitality area. Glass Hammer must eat, so we made our way to the college cafeteria and ate pizza with the students. It was about this time that I discovered this was to be David Walliman’s first-ever stage appearance, and he was feeling a little shaky. We had the ‘appearance’ of a live, performing group (and later we really would become that), but it was in truth a group of good friends and studio musician’s making every effort to pull something off that was, frankly, above our pay grade at the time. Not to say we weren’t all veterans of the stage – but Glass Hammer performances in those days were sometimes years apart. Thankfully, we were all highly motivated and committed to do our best regardless of the obstacles.
So back to the stage for the show. The choir director is conducting a choir singing simultaneously in English, Latin, and Tolkien’s Elvish (I’m not kidding.) She can’t hear. This is the cue for our drummer Matt Mendians to play louder. What to do? If you watch closely, you can probably see Fred conducting the stage right choir by bouncing up and down to keep them on time. I’m doing the same for the choir members directly behind the drummer while Susie is directing the stage left choir. I was thinking to myself the whole time, “This is Nashville! Why is this so hard?”
Regardless – the performance left the audience flabbergasted – many of them in tears, including the president of the college. The show was a success. We even determined to repeat the effort once more and did much the same type of concert in Chattanooga where we filmed “Live At The Tivoli”–Steve Babb, December 3, 2015
Let me note—as I know, Steve—when he states the audience was “flabbergasted,” he means it. He’s not one to brag, but he certainly tells the truth. He has too much integrity to exaggerate.
Watching and re-watching the extraordinary performances on Live at Belmont makes me realize something yet again. Even with all of the gifts that the band possesses, as listed above, there’s one quality that, I think, really makes GH stand out. Depth. Depth of feeling, depth of ability, depth of integrity, and depth of communication.
Last night, as I was grading final examinations and taking breaks between tests to reward myself for a certain number of blue books completed, I was reading G.K. Chesterton on mythology. I came across one of my favorite passages in all of Chesterton:
Behind all these things is the fact that beauty and terror are very real things and related to a real spiritual world; and to touch them at all, even in doubt or fancy, is to stir the deep things of the soul. . . . These are the myths: and he who has no sympathy with myths has no sympathy with men[Everlasting Man]
GH understands this. What they create is not merely wall-paper, background music. They are, after all, very proudly a prog group. Lots of instruments, intricate melodies, and switches in time signatures are an integral part of prog’s DNA. But, critically, they make something that is beyond even the lovely and glorious joy ride that is in the best prog. What they do is create myth. And, in so doing, they ask us to enter this rather perilous realm of their’s. When we do, we find terrible beauties, meaningful tragedies, maidens fair, and dragons demonic. . . but also joys so tragically unremembered and unseen in this real whirligig of postmodern reality.
Watching LIVE AT BELMONT only reminds me of what realities Glass Hammer has touched. And, shared.