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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Byron Cage

  • reviewed by LaTonya Taylor Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Feb
Byron Cage
Sounds like … gospel-influenced praise & worship choruses that will appeal to fans of Fred Hammond, Alvin Slaughter and Ron Kenoly.At a Glance … this live album of praise & worship demonstrates why this genre is rapidly becoming a powerful force in the gospel music community, with vertically focused and inclusive music that integrates the best elements of traditional gospel music and praise choruses.

Thomas Dorsey. James Cleveland. Dr. Mattie Moss-Clark. The Hawkins Family. The Winans. Fred Hammond. Kirk Franklin. Whenever there's a major shift within gospel music, key names emerge. Though Byron Cage is not new to the gospel music scene – as a young artist he toured with the late Thomas Whitfield and has released two previous albums (Dwell Among Us in 1995 and Transparent in Your Presence in 1996) – he is one of the "early adopters" who has integrated the praise & worship element into gospel music. As minister of music at two prominent black megachurches over the last 15 years (Atlanta's New Birth Cathedral, then Ebenezer A.M.E. in Fort Washington, Maryland) he's among those introducing this newest wave and broadening its appeal within the family of faith.

Aided by the production skills of label mate Kurt Carr (whose Stellar-Award winning, Grammy-nominated album Awesome Wonder is still making waves 3 years after its release), Cage's self-titled Gospo Centric debut is among the first wholly praise & worship albums to originate within the gospel music community. Although several gospel artists are including praise & worship tracks on their albums (and there have been significant praise & worship compilation albums and event-focused releases), artists like Cage and Judith Christie-McAllister are among the first artists within the gospel (rather than CCM) community to do this type of "dedicated" praise-and-worship album.

This live album, recorded in Atlanta at New Birth, opens with a high-energy arrangement of Michael Brooks' 1993 song "Magnify." Cage's clear, agile vocals open the song before he's joined by a full-bodied group of singers (which includes the Kurt Carr singers and several members of Cage's recording group, Purpose). The song transitions easily into "The Presence of the Lord." This cut, which has Carr's trademark sound, builds from a slow, straightforward chorus and explodes into a soaring, joyfully powerful song. It's simply a fun listen, with or without the vocals. Members of the band, led by music director and keyboardist Maurice Rogers, are clearly enjoying themselves on this cut (and on the whole album, for that matter). They manage to feature most instruments without overwhelming the vocalists or one another.

The audience clearly senses the different energy of the praise and worship service. The feel is that of a church service with an added element. As in church or at a concert, there is the satisfaction one experiences when hearing a good choir. But this genre requires the listener to participate to enjoy the experience fully. Carr also contributed "There is a Name," a simple, gentle chorus with a Sunday-morning feeling, and "That's What You Are to Me," a tender, reflective song focusing on God's faithfulness.

"Thou Art A Shield for Me" is among the outstanding tracks on this album. Cage leads this sensitive, passionate song, which has the feel of the Messianic folk praise choruses of the 1970s. The emotive lyrics – augmented in this song by dramatic key changes and rapturous crescendos contrasted with breathless, almost whispered phrases – originate in Psalm 3. They include: "I cried unto the Lord with my voice / and he heard me out of his holy hill / I laid me down and I slept / I awaked for the Lord sustained me / but Thou O Lord art a shield for me / my glory, you lift my head."

In "Byron Cage Medley," Cage leads the audience at his former church through an uptempo, remember-the-good-times medley that includes the easy, Caribbean-flavored "Glory Song" (complete with background whistle) and "Yet Praise Him," a soaring, bold chorus which transitions to a smart, brisk version of the popular "Shabach."

"It is to You" and "Glory To Your Name" have the straightforward, teachable qualities that will make them favorites in local church bodies. And Cage calls friend Brent Jones (of the TP Mobb) to join him onstage to sing Jones' "Never Too Busy," a traditionally didactic song about making time for God that leads into the devotional classic "Praise Him." The final cut, "Still Say Yes," is the only traditional gospel song on the album. A tribute to one of Cage's mentors, Thomas Whitfield, it is full of down-home organ, call-and-response leading and familiar, hand-clapping energy.

One of the key strengths of this album is its careful balance between performance and praise & worship. The music is excellent, the songs have been carefully chosen, transitions are clean and the background vocalists are strong. Yet the emotion of the music and its higher purpose are not lost within all of the professionalism and polish. The quality of the music and Cage's ease as a worship leader are undeniable, but they don't get in the way. The overall quality is at a level for smaller church groups and praise teams to aspire to – but it's a level that is accessible. That participatory, "inclusive" element – and the fact that there's just a touch of "old-time" church in this sound – will aid this genre's entree into churches where older members are more likely to listen to traditional gospel than CCM.

In any case, this album demonstrates why praise & worship music is rapidly becoming a powerful force in the gospel music community. It is vertically focused, inclusive music that integrates the best elements of traditional gospel music and praise choruses.