I've seen Phil Keaggy turn in a full rock set with a live band at the Cornerstone Festival. I saw him on the Keaggy-King-Dente tour in 1998. And I'd seen him do solo acoustic concerts two or three times. But it had been awhile. I was overdue for an evening with Mr. Keaggy.
My brother, my pastor and another friend from our church climbed into an SUV and made the 2.5-hour trek to Salisbury, NC. Turned out to be a quaint, southern town with an apparent emphasis on theatre and music. After killing 20 minutes in a downtown guitar shop, we had dinner at Uncle Buck's All American Pub & Grub. I had a burger with a fried egg on it and some of the best mashed potatoes ever. I'd give Uncle Buck's a solid 4 stars, maybe 4.5.
We found the Lee Street Theatre, stood in line in the cold for a while, and then found seats in the center of the 5th row. It's a 300-seat venue that's perfect for concerts of this sort. And tonight there was not a spare seat to be had. The sellout crowd seemed to really enjoy a four-song opening set by a young classical guitarist.
Phil was welcomed to the stage at 8 p.m. He was dressed in dark clothing with a jacket and his now trademark hat. He opened with Metamorphosis from the Acoustic Sketches album, followed by one of the night's strongest songs, Strong Tower from Find Me in These Fields. Phil was in fine voice on this upbeat rock number.
Keaggy was in great humor. He was funnier than I recalled. (Maybe that's the result of spending too much time with Randy Stonehill?) There was playful interaction with the audience all night long. Phil did a Bryan Duncan impression that had the audience howling with laughter.
Just before playing a lengthy instrumental titled Shades of Green, Phil joked, "This was one of my biggest hits in CCM." He continued, "This is a pretty long song. But it has its moments."
It was a treat to hear Pilgrim's Flight (from The Master and the Musician) and That is What the Lord Will Do for You, which was the opening track on Phil's first solo album released all the way back in 1973. He acknowledged that it was the first time he'd sung that song in a very long time.
Next up was Salvation Army Band, a song that he seems to do in every concert. Admitting that he'd been suffering from a head cold, some of the high notes were a strain on his vocal cords...but no one seemed to mind. Phil's in his early sixties now. The tone of his voice remains unchanged, but it probably wouldn't hurt to lower the key of the songs here and there.
After Village Bells and Legacy, we were treated to the title track from Phil's 1976 sophomore release. Several audience members sang along with the chorus to Your Love Broke Thru.
A couple of covers were up next. Phil tried his hand at the Beatles' Here Comes the Sun and delivered a fun (and pretty accurate) Elvis impersonation on One-Sided Love Affair.
He told the story of how he lost the middle finger on this right hand and shared some personal memories of his sister Mary Ellen, including a fairly detailed account of her career as an actress (who knew she had a speaking role in The Ten Commandments?) and the circumstances surrounding how she led him to the Lord in 1970. He followed with a song about Mary Ellen titled How Can I Thank You. This was the first "kleenex moment" of the concert for me.
Phil admitted that he didn't really have a setlist. "Well, I do, but it's 7 pages long," he joked. "You can leave whenever you want, but if I were you I'd stay and get my money's worth!"
At that point, he ripped into John the Revelator (by request), followed by a tune from The Wind and The Wheat.
Some of the alternate tunings were quite impressive, as well as his ability to record and play back layered tracks and tune various strings on the fly. I'm not a guitarist, but I know that what I saw and heard last night was extremely difficult to pull off. For Keaggy, it seems effortless.
Earlier in the show, an audience member had yelled out, "Time!" Phil made a face and tried to dismiss the request by saying, "I'm not that young anymore!" Later in the evening, a gentleman seated right behind me, perhaps emboldened by Phil's playing of the requested John the Revelator, yelled, "Time!" yet again. Keaggy made a pained expression and said, "You just want to hear the riff. So, here, I'll play the riff." So he cranked up his effects and got his recording machine going, tapping out a rhythm track on the body of the guitar. Once he had that going, he plunged into the easily recognizable intro to the beloved song first heard on the Love Broke Thru album. But a funny thing happened on the way to "just playing the riff." Apparently, it felt good to him and he continued, singing pretty much the entire song, much to the thrill and delight of audience members who were also longtime Keaggy fans. His vocals were amazing on Time and it was just such a treat to hear that great song once more in a live setting.
And just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the evening's final "kleenex moment" came for me as Phil sang the worshipful classic, Let Everything Else Go.
One more piece from The Master and the Musician, another instrumental that I didn't recognize, a playful Happy Birthday song (for an audience member on the front row, having flown from California as a 30th birthday present)...and the concert was history. He had played for an hour and 45 minutes.
Phil Keaggy's talent, wit, charm, and humility can be appreciated by all. But he is an absolute treasure to the Body of Christ. I left the Lee Street Theatre uplifted and thankful to Mr. Keaggy for his faithfulness to use the talent God gave him to bless so many people for so many years.
These words from the song Village Bells summed the evening up pretty well for me:
As decades roll into each other
We reminisce with one another
Generations wane, the photos yellow
And as we age we too grow mellow
Oh let us pray and let us give thanks
For the gift above all gifts
And let us raise our hands to the Son
Oh let us remember this
Click HERE to read another great review of the concert.