That Rory Block goes way back with these gospel blues songs does not by itself qualify her to sing them. At 62, she's at her most appealing when appropriating a lower-register, Maria Muldaur-like growl. But, unlike Muldaur (or Davis), Block seldom lightens up, and hearing her strain, rasp, and shriek her way through one song after another becomes painful. On several occasions, background harmonizers provide aural salve. Even they, however, get in the way of what's really worth hearing: Block's authoritative way with an acoustic guitar.
Derri Daugherty sounds as young at 53 as he ever has. So a tension develops as he sings lyrics such as "Make that phone call, write that letter, / live today to make amends"-lyrics in which you can hear him shedding years of accumulated knowledge in the hope that something simpler, like wisdom, lies at its core. And if the increased cliché quotient ("Embrace the mystery, / unlearn, unknow, / pray for serenity") suggests he hasn't reached his goal, the patient ease of the echoey music suggests he'll get there.
You'd never know from Steve Morse's solos or the way his bassist Dave LaRue meshes with drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater) that for them this project is a side gig. And because they keep their hands to the plow, Neal Morse (ex-Spock's Beard) and the primary lead vocalist Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev) get to indulge flights of fancy. That they don't overindulge them is why the music comes across tight and catchy. That Neal Morse is a Christian may be why the lyrics come across redemptive.
Not all of these love songs are covers. But covers do predominate, ranging from the almost sublime ("Good Vibrations"-almost because Keaggy's version first appeared 10 years ago on the Brian Wilson tribute Making God Smile) to the almost ridiculous ("I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"-almost because Keaggy's no Elvis). Keaggy also honors Paul McCartney with the highest form of flattery (twice). The highlight, though, is an original Keaggy co-wrote, "She Sees Me." Never has calling a helpmeet a "best friend" sounded sweeter.
Receptivity among believers to the music of Steve Scott has long exemplified what's wrong with evangelical art appreciation. During the 1980s, the London-born Renaissance man set serious, cliché-free lyrics to music rooted in David Bowie and the Psychedelic Furs. His thanks? A notoriously wrongheaded panning by CCM magazine and the failure of three of his albums to be released at all. Undaunted, he forged ahead, experimenting throughout the '90s with spoken-word observations set to ambient music that were even less likely than his rock tunes to endear him to megachurch habitués.
Rather than impose coherence on his various styles, the new compilation Emotional Tourist: A Steve Scott Retrospective (Arena Rock) arranges the high points of his creative periods in chronological order. The segues sometimes feel abrupt, and the deadpan preciosity of his recitations takes some getting used to. Stay with him, though, and times of which he's been ahead start to feel a lot like the present.