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"Strong Hand of Love:
A tribute to Mark Heard"
Fingerprint/Myrrh/Epic 1994
Strong Hand of Love - cover

This is, perhaps, the most important album that will be released in the Christian music market this year. Important because it celebrates, rediscovers and reinvents a bunch of songs written by one of our prolific, though sadly underappreciated singer-songwriters, Mark Heard.

Strong Hand of Love collects no less than 19 performances of as many brilliant Heard compositions, interpreted by a prestigious company that includes some of contemporary Christian music's more popular artists (DC Talk's Kevin Smith, Rich Mullins, Phil Keaggy, Steve Taylor, etc.), as well as contributions from a number of Christian artists working in the mainstream (Ashley Cleveland, Bruce Cockburn, Victoria Williams, Pierce Pettis, Tonio K, The Call's Michael Been, Vigilantes of Love, etc.). The result is not only artistically satisfying, but almost overwhelming in its emotional intensity.

It's impossible to extrapolate on the merits of all the individual cuts here, and as always with "tribute" albums, everyone will have their own favorites. What is significant is that nearly all of this music is unique to this collection; only three tracks have been released before. Other "firsts" occur here as well - including Kevin Smith's first recording as a solo artist ("Lonely Moon"), the comforting sound of Jesus Music veteran Pat Terry's welcome return ("Mercy of the flame"), a duet with Julie Miller and her husband Buddy ("Orphans of God"), the first tack from Tonio K in way too long ("Another Day in Limbo"), the first-ever recording of producer Dan Russell as an artist ("I Just Wanna Get Warm"), as well as what may be the last recording of Chagall Guevara ("Treasure of the Broken Land"), a bravura performance from Taylor & Co. that closes the album.

Mark Heard had the ability to relate the various facets of the Christian experience through his songwriting with an honesty that most Christian writers haven't yet scratched the surface of. These performances, some faithful to the original, some radical reinterpreted, will hopefully expose a new generation to a significant artistic voice that sensitively and intelligently articulated the struggle of following the faith better that almost anyone.

Thom Granger ( CCM, July 1994 )
Copyright © 1994 CCM Magazine

The whole point of a songwriter tribute album - such as this collection of Mark Heard songs, performed by a who's who of Christian music's alternative favorites - is to honor the writer by broadening the impact of his/her songs. In essence, each performer must walk a tight-rope, bowing in respect toward the writer and the original recording, yet making the song their own. They will be criticized if they vary too dramatically from the original; on the other hand, why bother to simply re-record the original arrangement, adding nothing?

Recently, such collections as Sweet Relief: A Benefit for Victoria Williams, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson and I'm Your Fan: the Song's of Leonard Cohen brought attention to obscure writers when famous artists delivered spirited renditions of their songs. Similarly, Stone Free: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix sought to turn the alternative audience on to the classic rock guitarist, but failed to fully serve his memory and contribution.

This last recording seemed motivated as much by financial gain (the large reliance on acts on the Reprise label, and the exclusion of obvious contributors like King's X, Sting or the Breeders being the prime giveaway) as any desire to honor Hendrix. The pattern works best, as it does on this Mark Heard tribute, when the artists included have a natural musical connection and/or, as is often the case here, a close personal tie to the artist in question.

The goal, ultimately, is to take each song to the next level, opening up the meaning intended by the writer, and perhaps by affiliation giving the songs to a larger audience than the writer could. For instance, more people probably heard "How To Grow Up Big and Strong" on Rich Mullins' Legacy, Litany and a Ragamuffin Band album last year, than on Heard's iDEoLA project Tribal Opera. And Mullins, backed by Beeker, Rick Elias and Jimmy A., did an excellent job on the song. The song's appearance again here, along with Heard works previously covered by Phil Keaggy and Pierce Pettis for their own albums, doesn't hurt the continuity of Strong Hand of Love in the least.

It is, however, the sixteen other Mark Heard compositions covered exclusively here that make this package unique. Everything from the respectful turns of "Castaway" by Bruce Carroll and "Mercy of the Flame" by regrettably long-absent Pat Terry, to more aggressive re-inventions by The Choir on "Tip of My Tongue," DC Talker Kevin Smith on "Lonely Moon" and former Call-leader Michael Been on "We Knew Too Much," engages the listener, extends the material and proves again and again Mark Heard's talent was far deeper than earthly patterns of success would suggest.

Ashley Cleveland takes complete ownership of "It's Not Your Fault," and where Kate Taylor bumps "Satellite Sky" in a country direction, Funck & Harrod ("Worry Too Much"), Victoria Williams ("What Kind of Friend") and Buddy & Julie Miller ("Orphans of God") explore country and gospel roots always present, but never entirely expressed in Heard himself. While most of the performances are strong, those remaining that are a cut above include Tonio K.'s "Another Day in Limbo," Bruce Cockburn's "Strong Hand of Love" and "Look Over Your Shoulder" by Randy Stonehill and Pam Dwinell Miner.

While much could be said about the obvious strength of Heard's melodic songcraft, poignant lyricism or the emotional integrity possessed in these performances, it's all been said before. One might be tempted as well to complain that not enough of Heard's great songs are included (for instance, a number of songs from Stop the Dominoes and Victim's of the Age deserve greater exposure), but if sales of this package are significant, there's a good possibility a Volume Two would happen.

The very tragedy of Heard's premature death just drips from the archival releases reviewed here last issue and this new tribute from his talented friends and co-striver's. Nothing can really erase the pain, but it goes down well knowing that his memory will not easily be forgotten, thanks to these fine artists and this great recording.

Brian Q. Newcomb ( Syndicate, Volume 9, Issue 2, July 1994 )
Copyright © 1994 Syndicate Magazine

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