images.jpgBryan Duncan and Friends The Live experienceOur lunatic friend returns with a live recording of some things old, some things new, some things borrowed, and Carlisle, too....

Bryan Duncan and Friends – The Live experience
Bryan Duncan
16 tracks / 61 minutes

Bryan Duncan is arguably a major player in that fraternity of 'best male vocalists' in in the history of CCM, sharing that coveted space with the likes of Bob Carlisle and Matthew Ward. Duncan, a veteran of the Christian music scene, has thankfully seen a resurgence in his recorded output these days with the advent of crowd-funding and digital downloads. Never a slave to the style-de-jour (okay, there was that rap song...), Bryan's distinctively clever lyrics and hooky, melodic songwriting have aged well - for that reason, the classics and the new material co-exist comfortably on the new live album,Bryan Duncan and Friends – The Live Experience .

Fronting an eight-piece band and backed by a team of back-up and featured singers, you can imagine the still boyish-looking Duncan (there's always a hint of mischief behind that smile) striding the stage, making his stunning vocal performance look effortless - or at least lots of fun. That's one thing that has always made this singer stand out from the crowd - his body language, facial expressions, and demeanor show us a person that loves to sing, and that loves to play with his songs. Imitating the guitar and horn parts, dropping or leaping an octave, basically challenging himself to see how far he can stretch the arrangement and/or his voice, Bryan seems to be entertaining himself while he entertains us.

Duncan is his usual soulful, funky self on songs like the more recent “Sweet Friend of Mine,” “You Made Me Love You,” “I See You,” and “I Can’t Imagine,” and is just as potent as ever on classics like “We All Need,” and the super-funky, ironic “Got Ya Where You Want Me.”

Readers that actually recognized the three names mentioned in the first paragraph will be excited to hear Bryan introduce his frequent partner-in-vocalese from the heyday of the 'Jesus Music' era, Bob Carlisle. Carlisle, like Duncan, was known for his blue-eyed soul delivery, albeit of a huskier, more testosterone-driven variety. Bob performs the mammoth hit-song that made him a household name in ’97 - "Butterfly Kisses." Even though it sounds like the back-up is at least partially a track, Carlisle's live vocal performance proves that he's still 'got it' - the only regret from this reviewer being the missed opportunity to have the duo that self-depreciatingly used to bill themselves as The Self-Righteous Brothers (gold stickers to those old enough to get the joke) perform one of their high-energy R&B covers. In fact, Bryan does a solo version of "Hold On I'm Comin'," one of the staples of his shows done with Bob, as one of several covers performed later on this album.

And speaking of those covers ...Bryan does a handful. “Drift Away” gets a suitable country-rock-soul treatment, and the awesome, bluesy “Ain’t No Sunshine,” is nailed vocally but might leave you wanting a few more minutes and several more ‘I know’ licks from the Duncan, who could probably blow this tune totally out of the water with his soulful phrasing. “I Can’t Stand The Rain” is super-funky, with a deep groove, tasty horn charts, and a great guest vocal by Brianne Mathews. The cover-set concludes with the aforementioned “Hold On, I’m Coming,” a rousing R&B staple performed to funky perfection with Bryan and the band in full-force. And let’s take a look at the band: Jason Palmer - Drums, Alexey Nikolae – Sax, Al Keith – Trumpet, Tony Hooper - Music Director, Guitar and Vocals, and – like I said – a team of back-up singers.

A fiery version of Bryan’s “Your Love, My Saving Grace,” from the Slow Revival album, follows, with Bryan being joined on vocals by Tony Hooper. The band gets to strut its stuff here, with several hot solo spots, including a stinging guitar solo from Hooper. Surprisingly, Hooper – not Bryan Duncan - gets the last word with his own “Salvation Has Come Today” closing out the project. Hooper’s is the last voice you hear, saying, “good night! God bless you, we love ya’!” as the album fades to the end, with Duncan nowhere to be found.

Questionable ending aside, Bryan Duncan and Friends – The Live experience is a satisfying Bryan Duncan project – and I’ll take all of the Bryan Duncan I can get. Whether it was generosity or bad judgement to give away the last moments to another artist is an argument that fans can, and no-doubt will, have their own opinions about. The inclusion of another non-Duncan track – “He’s Able,” a serviceable but not outstanding gospel song performed by Yvette Williams – is also puzzling when Bryan’s got so much great material that could have been included in its place.

The bottom line: the soulful, jazzy, funky Duncan is one of the treasures of Christian music and can hold his own in any venue – we’re fortunate to be blessed by his talent, wit, insight, and sense of fun. And, of course, there’s that voice. Here we have a little over an hour of Bryan and friends in a live performance – an experience well-worth having over and over again.

Bert Saraco