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Phil Keaggy (Profile Productions)

Phil's testament

Music | Live performance in Ohio displays what makes celebrated Christian guitarist special

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

In A Third Testament, Malcolm Muggeridge argued that Augustine, Pascal, Blake, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Bonhoeffer were uniquely instrumental in helping mankind "rediscover humility and, with it, hope" by calling it "back to God" during epochs particularly indifferent to Him.

Were Muggeridge still alive-and tolerant of rock 'n' roll-he might have also included Phil Keaggy.

At 61, the diminutive rocker has been composing and singing songs celebrating life in Christ for over 40 years, first with Glass Harp (who released three under-appreciated albums on MCA Records between 1970 and 1972), then as Contemporary Christian Music's most accomplished performer on both acoustic and electric guitars.

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But a light as bright as Keaggy's isn't easily diminished by bushels or genre labels. His talents have been perennially recognized by poll-voting readers of mainstream guitar magazines. And in 2009 Hal Leonard published The Best of Phil Keaggy, transcriptions of 15 of his recorded performances that essentially said, "No matter what you may make of this man or his faith, you've gotta admit that he sure can play the guitar."

The funny thing is, as fascinating as Keaggy's performances unfailingly are, the man and his faith are more fascinating yet.

Or maybe "inspiring" is a better word. His marriage to the wife of his youth, Bernadette, turns 39 this summer, an accomplishment made even more impressive in our divorce-crazy age when one considers that the Keaggys lost their first five children to stillbirth, early-infant death, or miscarriage. If surviving that kind of tragedy won't help people "to rediscover humility and, with it, hope," nothing will.

But Muggeridge's point was that his Third Testament heroes inspired virtue by amplifying God's voice. And no one literally amplifies anything these days more than a rock 'n' roller.

Keaggy's most recent live performance, headlining "Summerfest 2012" on the outdoor grounds of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Boardman, Ohio, might just have been what its name and location sound like, a low-key gig in front of hometown locals. (Keaggy hails from nearby Youngstown.)

Instead, his performance became emblematic of what makes him special.

There were two other locally bred acts, the Gary Markasky Project, named after its former-Michael-Stanley-Band-member guitarist, and Sarah Turner, a young, up-and-coming country singer. Markasky's performance went off without a hitch. Turner's, however, ended after her third song when a sudden and fiercely windy rainstorm sent her, her five-man band, and the several hundred, mostly middle-aged, lawn-chair-clutching members of the audience running for cover beneath the beer tent. (This was a Catholic event after all.)

By the time the rain stopped and the sun came out, the stage had been rendered unusable. Then the word spread: The show was being "moved inside."

"Inside" turned out to be the church-school's auditorium-i.e., a cafeteria with a stage. As volunteers set up tables and chairs, the musicians (including Keaggy's two fellow Glass Harpers John Sferra and Daniel Pecchio) assembled a makeshift sound system. After the long and messy delay, the crowd would probably have settled for anything.

It didn't have to. Keaggy dazzled, whether acoustic and solo with technically impressive gadgetry ("The Answer," "Salvation Army Band"), electric with Glass Harp ("David and Goliath," "Do Lord"), or electric with Glass Harp and the Markasky band ("Crossroads," "People Get Ready").

And whether singing or speaking between songs, the message was clear: Jesus.

"There's a God who made us," Keaggy said at one point. "And we mean a lot to Him."

Even people without ears to hear would've had a hard time missing the point.

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