Andrew Peterson and Friends: The Ragamuffin Album, Live at the Ryman

Last Sunday night I had the privilege of attending an Andrew Peterson-organized and -led concert honoring the legacy of Rich Mullins at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Peterson and his cadre are roughly my age, and we share a deep debt to Mullins, who in his all-too-short musical career penned songs that showed that Christian music could be artistic, poetic, and honest in ways we hadn’t before seen. (Andrew wrote an essay for the concert booklet telling his Rich Mullins story that’s well worth a read. It’s posted on The Rabbit Room.)

This year is the 20th anniversary of Mullins’ death in a car accident, and served as an opportunity for Peterson to round up his friends and prepare the music. The Ryman was packed to capacity with an audience that clearly loves Rich’s music just as much as the musicians themselves do; the concert was punctuated with opportunities for the audience to sing along, starting from an impromptu acapella chorus of “Awesome God”, which Peterson led “just to get it out of the way”. (While it’s perhaps Mullins’ best known song to the general public, it’s certainly not his favorite among his more devoted fans.)

Peterson and friends followed a concert format that he has perfected over years of touring his Behold The Lamb of God Christmas tour. The first half of the concert rotated in each of the guest artists to sing a Mullins song of their choice, with AP sneaking a few of his own choices in along the way.

When we hit intermission I told my wife that I couldn’t think of another Rich song that I was disappointed that they hadn’t played in the first half. The set list:

“Awesome God” – AP
“Calling Out Your Name” – AP
“Boy Like Me/Man Like You” – AP
“Hard to Get” – Andy Gullahorn
“Cry The Name” – Jill Phillips
“What Susan Said” – Andrew Osenga
“The Howling” – Jeremy Casella
“Screen Door” (complete w/ cups) – Brandon Heath & Mitch McVicker
“You Did Not Have A Home” – Finnegan Bell
“Elijah” – Matt Giraud
“Buenos Noches from Nacogdoches” – Leigh Nash
“Bound to Come Some Trouble” – Mitch McVicker
“If I Stand” – AP

The second half of the concert brought each of those artists back out in turn to perform note-for-note versions of each song from Rich’s masterpiece A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band. A string section played the original string charts as provided by Rich’s producer Reed Arvin (who himself was present and played the piano on “Creed” midway through the second half).

To my critical ear they were indeed almost exactly note-for-note and lick-for-lick. Gabe Scott had his hammered dulcimer skills tested and found awesome. My specific criteria for this evaluation was the little turn from the second verse into the pre-chorus of “Peace” – there’s a drum fill, a bass slide, and a little guitar riff that come together in a sublime little moment that I’m probably the only person in the world who cares about. They nailed it. The only place they diverged was I think they gave Andy Osenga an extra couple choruses to play a smoking guitar solo on the end of “How To Grow Up Big and Strong”… but ain’t nobody gonna complain about that.

The second half setlist:

“Here In America” – AP
“Isaiah 52:10” – Jill Phillips
“The Color Green” – AP
“Hold Me Jesus” – Brandon Heath
“Creed” – AP, Andy Gullahorn, and Jill Phillips
“Peace” – Andy Gullahorn
“78 Eatonwood Green” – Gabe Scott on the hammered dulcimer
“Hard” – Finnegan Bell
“I’ll Carry On” – Jeremy Casella
“You Gotta Get Up” – Leigh Nash
“How To Grow Up Big and Strong” – Andrew Osenga
“Land of My Sojourn” – AP

Even they they weren’t quite done. Peterson brought the full cast of musicians out and led the (now standing) audience in “Step By Step” (with guest vocals by Peterson’s daughter Skye) and the call-and-response of “I See You”, which itself leads back in to one final chorus of “Step By Step”. After some final applause, Peterson did his trademark exit, singing the first line of the Doxology, and then exiting the stage as the audience finished singing it. (1200 people singing the Doxology in the old Ryman auditorium: chills.)

Hearing so many of Rich’s songs in one sitting highlighted both the artistry and prophetic nature of his lyrics. For instance, the last few lines from “Hard”:

I am a good midwestern boy
I give an honest day’s work when I can get it
I don’t cheat on my taxes, I don’t cheat on my girl
I’ve got values that would make the White House jealous

Peterson wondered aloud (perhaps just as much as he dared) whether Rich had any idea those words would still resonate so loudly 25 years after he wrote them. But the lines that stood out even more loudly to me were from “Land of My Sojourn”:

And the lady in the harbor
She still holds her torch out
To those huddled masses who are
Yearning for a freedom that still eludes them
The immigrant’s children see their brightest dreams shattered
Here on the New Jersey shoreline in the
Greed and the glitter of those high-tech casinos
But some mendicants wander off into a cathedral
And they stoop in the silence
And there their prayers are still whispered
And I’ll sing their song, and I’ll sing their song
In the land of my sojourn

The list of concerts I’ve attended isn’t as long as I’d like – and shorter thanks to the U2 concert in St. Louis getting cancelled last weekend – but Sunday night at the Ryman has to be right up there at the top of the list. Peterson posted on Facebook the next day that it might have been his favorite concert ever. I’d be inclined to agree with him.

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