Monday, February 15, 2010

Phil Keaggy/Randy Stonehill: Mystery Highway (Review)

Phil Keaggy/ Randy Stonehill, Mystery Highway
(or, Sunday’s Child Part 2)

(This came out in June 2009, but I just found it.)

Rowdy fun-loving Jesus rock, with heavy nods to the Beatles, Cream, rockabilly, Bob D, and the blues.

Warning: do not listen to this disk if you would avoid catchy galloping-guitar tunes playing the repeat cycle in your head. "Riding Backwards on her Bike" has cut a permanent groove between my ears and into my kid-like psychedelic soul.

Tomorrow, should a Mount Rushmore be built in honor of the founding fathers of Jesus Music, Phil Keaggy would be my first pick among the quartet. I know that Larry Norman and Keith Green belong there too, (historically), but should I get to pick the remaining three, I would want to squeeze in Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, Paul Clark and John Michael Talbot. (Can we go for five heads?)…and I have conveniently left out Daniel Amos as “he” is a band, but I count Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill as among the most important people ever knock the socks off of my formative ear. (Or something like that)

It is with some consternation then that I see two of my founding fathers have put out a joint CD without so much as a flutter in the music industry. (It may be there, but I have yet to fully understand the dynamics of the new market place. It used to be that we stood with others in the store smelling vinyl, counting stock, and checking out nifty posters. Back then we played music… out loud though speakers. Now, the only way I have of knowing if something is really making waves, is to see if the product generates reviews.

To be honest, I just haven’t gotten used to the idea that Phil and Randy are “old folks” music. But even if they are, there seems to be something in this album that says: Look out young-uns, we got game. We Rock.”

To Catch a wiff, or get the drift, try this link to "Who's Your Driver"

Mystery Highway is, among other things, a bold nod to the music of sixties or seventies (or in this case, to an 80’s album by Keaggy (Sunday’s child) that was itself a nod to the Beatle/Birds era using period instruments. Randy Stonehill played a vital backup role in Sunday’s Child, and that, with a remake of the Sunday’s Child title song on Mystery Highway, invites immediate comparison.

For Keaggy fans, the question is: How can a man with over fifty albums under his belt generate something new. (Answer: Add Uncle Rand)  For Randy fans, the question is: Why is a man of this gregarious spirit, insight, flamboyance and sobering vocal beauty so un-findable in the marketplace. (Anyone out there with an extra copy of between the Glory and the Flame want to send one this way?)

All of which is to say…I was pumped to see these two in such rare but obvious collusion.

And the verdict is…. FUN.

Big, LOUD, Rock-a-Billy-Goat-gruff, Lucy-in-the-laughing-sky-with-blue-Dylan Cream Puff galloping-guitar synergistic vocal-rhapsodic FUN. Perhaps not the kind of album one turns to for building a base in doctrine, or weeping for the plight of the world, but the kind of album you crank up loud on a Saturday cleaning morning, or with the car windows rolled down…while driving the HIGHWAY. Roadtrip yea….

The overall nod to Keaggy’s album “Sunday’s Child” is such that I will place this CD next to that in my collection, but Stonehill’s larger place in this recording makes for a slightly different brew. More muscle. More mirth. A little more detail in the lyrics. An alt-country touch and a sturdy dose of blessed Stonehill idiocy. Indeed, these two guys feed off of each other vocally for a very dimensional, lively, utterly joyful, kick-butt sound.

And the re-recording of the Sunday’s Child’s title track makes for interesting comparison. How do twenty years of in-between change a song? In some ways not much. Same basic song, same energy, same twining of David and Jonathan vocals. But this time, more bass in the mix, more weather in the vocals. Both men run mean falsettos, but both seem to have dropped an octave or a third, adding vocal sinew to the mix.

As it is, I found one other quirky nod to Sunday’s child. At the time of that recording (near or soon after singer/songwriter Mark Heard’s death) Keaggy recorded two covers of Mark’s songs. One showed up on Sunday’s Child, and the other on a Mark Heard Tribute disk. So, here I am listening to Mystery Highway, and I hear a Heard song. I know if by heart. (It is one of the most beautiful love songs in the history of the world… and I am singing with it word for word. Then I’m thinking, “so what album did Keaggy borrow from to make this remix.” Turns out neither. It’s the third cover of Heard, never heard before. But the cover was so in the audio spirit of the others I assumed it to be “ancient.” Beyond that, it simply aches with beauty.

Mystery Mix:

Speaking of the process, Keaggy (linear notes) writes: “With Randy living on the West coast and me in Nashville, the distance didn’t keep us from collaborating on a new collection of songs. Randy began scheduling song writing sessions here in Nashville about every couple of months--and being that we really enjoy hanging out together and amusing each other (the guy still make me laugh a lot), we though yea, let’s also write and see what comes of it. So each time we would work on a tune and record the basic track to it. After Randy left for home, I further add bass, drums, guitars and more vocals. … We even re-recorded our song “Sunday’s Child” for a fraction of the cost from the 1987 original, having recorded it in my small studio. I also must tell you that the out-takes would certainly be appreciate by people of similar sense of humor as mine and Randy’s. Perhaps they may see the light of day on one of our websites.

Mystery lyrics:

Keaggy may have set the tone for Mystery’s sound, but if my guess is right, Stonehill had his thumb real deep in the writing pie. (I hear it most in those kind of Route 66, spaghetti-western with whistle lyrics, and stuff about junk cars.) And here, the message fits the form. This is rock. Not the standard place for polemic, or even stand alone poetry… but the duo have dished up lyrics that somehow communicate spiritual force, way beyond the words.. (I guess that’s why we call it music and Randy is a poet!) Really though, Phil and Randy have worked to spin stories -- or even admonitions --consistent with their Jesus’ loving roots that don’t sound preachy or boxed. (More Later.)

By far the oddest song in the mix…Rockman, features the wacked out mono lyric of Randy Stonehill (I’m the rockman, no one can do it like the man can, I’m the rockman rockman…..etc.) This song stands out for its audio incongruity, and will either be found as an irritant, or the kind of thing that invites whole families to pull out the air guitar. But for me the oddest song on the album is “Rockin’ in a Hard Place”-- A song which notes the culture challenging walks of Elvis, Joshua, Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King Jr. ---

MLK and Joshua -- Sure.
But Elvis?

Final Take:

This album cooks. -- It’s a real audio treat, plays quick, and makes for an easy repeat for a long commute. And I while I like the sound, I really really dig the friendship energy. Real Friendship is a rare thing. Guys can feel awkward with it -- then there is all that stuff of fair-share and ego. Phil and Randy have shown us is that two stunning musicians can fuse together independently (or something like that), give their egos to God (or one another), and soar in ways that bless us all, that much more.

Perhaps my only “sigh” -- I keep thinking they missed a song…something that would have pushed the album into the realm of great. (On Sundays Child, that song is “When you Walk in Two Worlds.” I’m missing “that” song. For the singles buyers among you, I recommend these downloads: Backwards on Her Bike, Sunday’s Child, Mystery Highway, Love is Not the Only Thing (Mark Heard), Irresistible Future, and the final trippy (Glass Harp/Cream colored “Dream Speak.”

Of course, there is one reason to go the extra mile and buy the CD. I won’t tell you what it is, but its hidden right under the disk. Priceless.

Ps. Thank you Randy for posting a link to my site on your Facebook fan page.  (And if you are new to this blog (most everyone is) feel free to look around, try my other bloggy things, or leave a comment.  I always appreciate them.


  1. Great review! I've been looking forward to buying this CD soon, as soon as I save enough nickles from beer bottle and soda can returns! However, since I hardly drink soda any more and never been much of a beer drinker, this may take awhile!

    I long thought that Phil is quite underrated as a songwriter, but I can see your point about how Uncle Randy would add to the lyrics and the vibe.

    Here's to lots more music for these two whether as solos or this duo.

  2. This is the album about which I've spoken to more friends than any other in the past 3-4 years. Frankly, the original Sunday's Child didn't do much for me, despite the fact that I have loved both Uncle Rand and Phil since 74-75. So I wasn't sure what to expect. But all the news was good. I found the songwriting very, very solid (Randy is one of my favorite writers ever, and Phil brings in that solid Beatlesque influence), and the production and the overall energy level just perfect for the musical style. I don't even think you need to be a fan of these guys to appreciate the music. Really strong, FUN stuff.

  3. Kirk, infectious review - you've made me go sample tracks and now it look's like I'll have to have my own copy!

    I've added the following to my blog:

    "For a recent [PK] studio album, read one of the most enjoyable and exuberant PK reviews I've read, by blogger Kirk Jordan on "Mystery Highway", Phil and Randy Stonehill's collaborative effort."

    I now have over 17 PK CDs, not counting old LPs and two DVD concerts and I keep thinking that I have a sufficient number, then I read a review like yours :)

  4. I got here from Uncle RAnd's faceBook page, thank you very kindly. And this may be the album that gets me back into a X book store; hopefully i can find it out in the mainstream, tho'? That way Uncles RAnd and Phil both get their full soundscan points from my purchase.

    ;) - Hope i'm not giving away a dirty li'l secret, here??

  5. Great review! I have to confess I was disappointed the first time I listened to the album. For one thing the production wasn't as good as I'd hoped - it sounded like what it is: a homemade recording, and I was expecting more from such musical veterans (although I don't know how much experience either has at production). Also, what we got on the album was kinda what you'd expect from a collaboration by these two: A lot of Beatle-esque numbers (Phil) and a good dose of humor (Randy). But I was hoping for something more - something from these two that transcended expectations and anything they'd done in the past. I was also hoping for more spiritual depth. However, once I accepted the album for what it is, it really grew on me, and I came to see that it's more of a witnessing tool or an apology to unbelievers than a grand treatise for believers. Several of the songs (like "Who's Your Driver" and "Picture Postcard Perfect Day") seem to be asking unbelievers to consider questions of eternal import and destiny. The message seems to be "See, these old Christian dudes can rock AND have fun AND get you to thinking about eternity all at the same time." And that's not a bad thing. :-)