Susan Ashton and Gary Chapman

By Robert Gruber

The sanctuary at Northeast Christian Church took on a Whitney Hall feel the evening of Nov. 29. It was the last date of Susan Ashton and Gary Chapman's "acoustic evening" tour, and it was truly an evening to remember.

Initially, my vision of "an acoustic evening" was of Chapman doing a short set of his stuff on acoustic guitar, followed by Susan Ashton performing her hits to similarly sparse arrangements. Thankfully, such was not the case The two of them performed each other's songs together, backed by an "unplugged" band of Nashville studio cats.

And while.Ashton was the bigger-name draw, wiseacre Chapman stole the show at every turn with his brazen between-song wit and extraordinary musical prowess.

With Christmas in the air, someone gave the duo a big box of home-made cookies as a gift. Chapman quickly decided it would be a good idea to pass some out to the crowd, and a near laugh riot broke out as Chapman tossed cookies all over the room (he missed the balcony, lodging a cookie in a lighting can high above the room that's probably still there today). The rapport between Chapman and Ashton reminded me of a wickedly funny Regis and Kathy Lee, taking pointed, yet good-natured jabs at each other all night.

Almost like a show-biz husband and wife — never mind that both of their spouses were in attendance that night — Ashton's husband, guitarist Jay Montgomery, onstage to her right, Chapman's wife (you've heard of Amy Grant, right?) seated in the audience.

Despite the antics, the music was solid and splendid. Ashton demonstrated why she is one of today's leading vocalists as she lent power to stripped-down versions of "Here In My Heart," "Grand Canyon," "Grace Land" and numerous other hits. Her singing of "A Rose is a Rose," accompanied here by solo piano, could wrench tears from an anvil. On bluesier numbers, Ashton was able to add the right amount of grit, while on more country-fried tunes she had sincerity without too much twang; versatility without being a show-off.

Chapman's unique turns of phrase in such songs as "Finally," "Written In the Scars," and "Sweet Glow of Mercy" were as inspired as the voice he sang them with — pure, husky, at times surprisingly tender and measured, a gospel voice that could work well in either a high church setting or a barroom stage. His a capella take on "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" rang less like a classic hymn than a sweet new reminder from the Holy Spirit. "Sweet Jesus" was pure emotion, bringing even Chapman himself to tears as he poured out, in song, the story of a bridge disaster. Just when it seemed he couldn't possibly top himself, Chapman would sing something like "Man After Your Own Heart," and amaze all that much more.

As Ashton sang, Chapman would add texture with vocals, guitar, dobro, and mandocello. The band, playing drums, keyboards, percussion, (at times) stand-up bass, accordion, and more acoustic guitars than Guitar Emporium, kept everything tight and dynamic, providing much inspiration for the singers. It was truly a "you had to be there" kind of night; entertaining and musically incredible. Funny, too, like when someone from the crowd called out to Chapman, "Let Amy sing one!"

Without missing a beat, Chapman retorted," "Snap out of it, kiddo, the tickets weren't that expensive!" Singer Joanna Carlson opened the evening with a short, worshipful set of songs from her debut album The Light Of Home on Reunion Records. Carlson possesses an elegant voice and a true heart for the Lord that should get her much attention in the months to come.