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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Phil Keaggy / Randy Stonehill
Label: Oddbody Records
Time: 12 tracks / 44:11
Giants. Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill are unquestionably two giant figures on the landscape of contemporary Christian music. These are artists who, for decades, have faithfully and reliably delivered meaningful music full of artistic integrity. With Keaggy and Stonehill we’re dealing with two performers that are as capable of being as comical and lighthearted as they are of being profound and earnest. For the most part, on Mystery Highway, these brothers-under-the-skin lean more towards Goofus than Gallant (come on – who remembers those two from Weekly Reader?), having a lot of fun and playing some seriously good rock and roll.
Now elder statesmen of the ‘Jesus Music’ scene and masters of their craft, Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill kick off their serious-shoes and plunge headlong, without restraint, into 11 originals and one cover tune (Mark Heard’s “Love is not the Only Thing”). The playing and singing is fresh and unrestrained, recalling (in spirit and musically) the Beatle-inspired pop that both men grew up and the music it spawned in the decades that followed.
The guys rock significantly on songs like, “Rockin’ in a Hard Place,” the funky, humorous, “Rockman,” the rockabilly Elvis-invoking, “Picture Postcard Perfect Day,” “Soul Girl,” and the opening track, “Who’s Your Driver,” (where the ever-stunning Mr. Keaggy is his own version of Rock Band, virtually rocking out on guitar, bass, vocals and drums).
“Dreamspeak” tips its hat (rather obviously) to Cream’s “Strange Brew,” while “Backwards on Her Bike,” “Irresistable Future,” and the title track, “Mystery Highway,” similarly dabble with different Brit-pop permutations of the blues.
Long-time fans of both men will recognize the Beatle-influenced “Sunday’s Child,” from the album of the same name, while its never-recorded musical cousin, “We’ll Meet again,” is a fitting companion-piece that would’ve fit nicely on the same album.
Perhaps by contrast, as the only song on the album written by a third party, Mark Heard’s “Love is Not the Only Thing,” stands out as a poignant and beautiful musical statement, lovingly performed in an acoustic setting and featuring a particularly effective vocal performance. This is the eye of the storm – not to diminish the rest of the album, certainly, but the Heard composition is a singular emotional touch point.
Stonehill is, of course, a fine guitarist, songwriter, and singer – frequently slipping here into his ‘Uncle Rand’ persona, which is heard to best effect on “Rockman.” It’s obvious that these icons of Christian music had a great time doing a project without the restraints of major-label Christian style political-correctness. One look at the interesting picture of Phil and Randy inside the digipac will be enough to understand the sense of fun and good humor involved in this recording. No spoilers here – buy the CD. Keaggy is unquestionably a guitar legend and multi-instrumentalist. Both men display chameleon-like vocal skills which they effortlessly stretch to meet the demands of the various rock genres represented on Mystery Highway. Can you go wrong with the combined talents of Randy and Phil? No.
Stonehill did his usual fine vocal work and played acoustic guitar. Keaggy also offered excellent vocals and played guitars, bass, mandolin, percussion and drums. Various friends – the likes of Mike Pachelli, John Sferra and others – added background vocals, occasional drums, bass, etc. …but this was, without a doubt, the Phil and Randy show – the act you’ve known for all these years, to quote another group. It’s refreshing to see these veterans kick back and have some fun.
When you’re as good as they are it becomes fun for all of us.