Rich Mullins with Ashley Cleveland and Carolyn Arends

By Robert Gruber

An almost-packed house at Memorial Auditorium on October 24 got an unforgettable night of music as Rich Mullins brought his "Brother's Keeper" tour to Louisville. Mullins, one of contemporary Christian's finest singer/songwriters, was backed by his Ragamuffin Band and brought along two extremely talented up-and-comers, Ashley Cleveland and Carolyn Arends..

Arends and Cleveland opened the show with short, acoustic sets. Carolyn Arends went on first, singing songs from her Reunion debut, I Can Hear You. Carolyn possesses a soft, yet expressive voice, similar to Lisa Loeb or Suzanne Vega and her folkish originals have almost an alternative rock feel to them. Ashley Cleveland, by contrast, sang and strummed with power and passion, in a blues-soaked voice (a la Melissa Etheridge) that wowed the crowd. Cleveland played a mix of older songs and new ones from her recently released album Lesson of Love and amused the audience with anecdotes. She closed her set with a song about her 3-year old son, Henry, who cracked everybody up when he joined his mom onstage, 'jamming' on an inflated toy guitar and striking rock star poses.

Mullins was joined by partner Beaker on guitar, Jimmy A on guitar and mandolin, Mark Robertson on bass, Aaron Smith on drums and Lee Lundgren on everything else, along with a trio of backup singers. Rich himself switched from guitar to dulcimer to piano as he and the band played mostly songs from his new Brother's Keeper album. The band's sound was tight and authentic, despite a somewhat poor mix that brought the drums up too high and kept the bass pushed down. Mullins' pure tenor voice, strained as it was from the long tour, broke in spots, but even so, it broke in all the right places, lending impassioned urgency to his sweeping lyrics. Jimmy A's playing was fluid and colorful; Lundgren added textures with organ and accordion; drummer Aaron Smith brought just the right amount of skill and dramatic effect to the game. I would like to have seen an ensemble this good jam a little bit longer on some songs, but the show's pacing kept everything moving along pretty fast.

I really enjoyed the cuts they played from the Ragamuffin Band album, such as "The Color Green" and "Hold Me Jesus." Mullins is an humble, engaging performer, taking delight in sharing the spotlight with his band and his guests. He told a fair share of funny, touching stories between songs. As he took a solo turn at piano (singing one of the most thoroughly worshipful "break-up" songs I've ever heard), he made a pointed observation of how the Christian life is not always a 100% positive thing, nor should it be.

Mullins led the crowd through a worship time with him, bringing Ashley Cleveland and Carolyn Arends back onstage to take turns singing praise with the band. The crowd sang along and Rich complimented them for their singing — indeed, the crowd did have a lovely choir-like sound; at times the band would refrain just to let them sing. Closing with a trio of his better-known worship tunes, including "Awesome God" and "Creed," Mullins came back out to do a moving encore of classic hymns, accompanied by Arends and Cleveland.

The "Brother's Keeper" tour is presented by the International Bible Society, who, in cooperation with Mullins, are raising money to reach Native Americans with special "Jesus Way" translations of the Bible. If you would like more info on this, write to l.B.S. at: P.O. Box 35901, Colorado Springs, CO 80935-9975.