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Garth Brooks at the Lincoln Memorial (AP/Alex Brandon)

Giving direction

Music | From backing major stars like Garth Brooks to leading music at his church, Rob Mathes receives deserved recognition

On Sunday, Rob Mathes directed the band backing the nation's stars-from Beyoncé to Bono to Garth Brooks to Shakira to Stevie Wonder to Springsteen-for the pre-inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Tens of thousands came, including Barack Obama and his family, to see (as the Huffington Post put it), "pretty much every celebrity in the universe."

Mathes may direct the Kennedy Center Honors, arrange music for Yo Yo Ma and Elton John, and compose for Wynonna Judd and Faith Hill, but he's also a professed Christian who writes hymns and what he calls his "own little brand" of bluesy, spiritual pop. And most Sundays you won't find him on the national stage; he's usually leading music at Trinity Church in Greenwich, Conn.

An Emmy-nominated musical producer, Mathes has a resume that might take the length of a pre-inaugural concert to read. His website casually tosses around names like Lenny Kravitz, Jay-Z, Avril Lavigne, Tony Bennett and Sting. Although he mainly produces music, he also composes and leads a band of acclaimed musicians that includes a drummer from Saturday Night Liveand a bassist from Late Show With David Letterman. His annual Christmas concert at Purchase College always draws a crowd.

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Makoto Fujimura, founder of the International Arts Movement (IAM), created the album artwork for Mathes' latest album, Orchestral Songs. "These are beautiful songs about relationships," said Fujimura, "often taken out of poems by Yates and William Carlos Williams. And they really are some of the best music you hear." Mathes recorded it at London's Abbey Road Studios, the famous recording home of The Beatles-a humorous twist considering what a major label said when they wanted to sign Mathes years ago. "They basically told him he was more talented than Paul McCartney but he's not as handsome," Fujimura recalled, adding that Mathes composed the song "Fatman" in response.

Fujimura called Mathes' personal compositions "sophisticated" and not easily marketed: "It's not something that you'll find in a Christian book store. . . . His music falls in between the culture at large and the church. It falls somewhere in the gap." This is the kind of artist IAM champions-ones rigorously engaging their talents and, perhaps because of their faith, creating art outside the mainstream market. Mathes participated in IAM's annual conference in 2006 and 2007 and also judged its juried music competition.

Vanessa Williams, who made Mathes musical director for her first international tour, said he has a "sincerity that overwhelms you when you listen to his music and lyrics. . . . He has not gotten to where he is because of a slick promotional campaign, getting lucky with some kind of gimmick. He is truly deserving, but truly deserves to be recognized as a musician and a leader." After Mathes appeared with Williams on The Rosie O'Donnell Show, the host said, "Watch for Rob Mathes, folks. This guy is going to be a big star."

Fujimura added that Mathes' faith "comes out in everything he does," usually in an implicit way but sometimes explicitly, too. The last time Fujimura saw Mathes in New York City, he played at a prestigious club and opened with "Be Thou My Vision." Not unusual: Mathes often opens or closes his shows with a hymn. "And everybody's fine with it," Fujimura said, "because it's Rob Mathes."


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