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Live Volume 1: Hoping

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 May
Live Volume 1: Hoping
Sounds like … mellow acoustic folk pop that recalls Mark Heard, David Wilcox, and Shaun GrovesAt a Glance … this is a strong live album from every angle: the quality of the songwriting, the skilled musicianship, and the charming interplay between artist and audience

What exactly makes a good live album? Many people are discouraged from buying concert recordings because they believe they're either too similar or inferior to the original album(s) by the artist. A live album should never be released as mere filler to draw more album sales out of a popular artist. Rather it should display the heart of the artist, creating a sense of communion with the audience via the performance and the stage banter. An even better live album will display some impressive musicianship that's only hinted at on the original recording.

Need some examples? Despite the bootleg sound quality and the fact that it doesn't represent a single concert, Rich Mullins's Here in America still succeeds because the quality of the songwriting and the musicianship rise to the top, and the artist so effectively forms a bond with the audience through his words and action. Those positive attributes are applicable to the new offering from independent artist Jason Gray, entitled Live Volume 1: Hoping and recorded over two nights at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Mankato, Minnesota. Backed by a strong live band with minimal rehearsal, this is a remarkably strong concert recording from a talented songwriter and musician not enough people are aware of — we featured him in our early 2002 edition of "Ten Independent Artists You Should Know."

Jason's songwriting style balances the gritty acoustic rock sound of Mark Heard with the pop sensibilities of Shaun Groves, while occasionally painting his words with whimsical stories and illustrations reminiscent of Chris Rice and David Wilcox. His last release, 2000's A Place Called Hope, was produced by the great Nate Sabin (Sara Groves) and distributed via True Tunes Records. Four of that album's songs are represented here. "Leaving It All Behind" is a funky slice of acoustic pop/rock with jamming and scatting (in a nod to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"), poetically expressing rejection of the sinful life: "I grew up on the south side of hope in the arms of mistress indigo/Her love like a bottle banging on the back of my head." Another highlight is the pleasant country pop ballad, "The Letter," a beautiful expression of love and hope written from God's perspective concerning his Word.

An unexpected and welcome surprise from this album is that half of the tracks are originals unrecorded before now. "Come" is a thoughtful and worshipful opener that recalls Mark Heard, Vigilantes of Love, and Rich Mullins. Many of Jason's newer songs show a propensity toward illustrations and parables, which some will find endearing and others will find cheesy. The jazzy "Curiosity Killed the Cat," which is very reminiscent of David Wilcox's songwriting, uses feline metaphors to encourage us to take chances with our faith. It's highlighted by some fun audience participation inspired by Cab Calloway's famous call and response routine from "Minnie the Moocher"—too bad the microphone setup doesn't capture the audience as well as it should have, but it's not too bad. "The Garden," meanwhile, is a pretty folk song that serves as a simile for love and marriage. If any of these new songs are overly schmaltzy, it's "Learning to Ride a Bike," which still works in its comparison of said youthful aspiration and our lifelong spiritual walk.

So goes the first two-thirds of Live Volume 1, but the best comes with the final four tracks, an inspired semi-medley of songs spanning thirty minutes. It begins with a nine-and-a-half minute rendition of the prayerful "If You Lead Me" from A Place Called Hope: "Could it be that the harvest of Your perfect will in me/All begins with the planting of a restless seed/I hold my breath as I lay trembling in the dark/Waiting for the slightest little movement in my heart." After a time, the song morphs into parts of Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle," which sets things up perfectly for a ten-minute cover of Charlie Peacock's "Down in the Lowlands," which offers a similar Psalm-like plea of desperation. Remaining faithful to the song's bluesy base, which is a nice match for Jason's own style, the song is punctuated by excellent instrumental solos by all the band members. That leads into the sweet and soulful surrender of "A Place Called Hope," a show-stopping performance featuring only Jason and his guitar. It's a natural lead-in to the album's final track, a cover of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" that segues into the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy."

Not that you haven't heard or seen performances like this before—Jason's acoustic pop style is nothing new to Christian music—but his skills cannot be denied. Odds are he'll surpass your expectations of an unsigned artist virtually unknown to Christian radio. This is a live album that satisfies on multiple levels: strong songwriting, skilled musicianship, and enjoyable stage banter. Before listening to Live Volume 1: Hoping, I only had some sense of who Jason Gray was from his bio and last independent release. Now I feel I know him and his music much better. It's also interesting to note that this is a man who once wrestled with a stuttering problem and public speaking. Now you would never know it—he's funny and insightful, sounding just like a seasoned professional with a large following. The fact of the matter is that Jason Gray is probably just getting started.