You Are There
Cadence Records, 1999
REVIEW BY: Michael Ehret
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/03/1999
For her fourth album, rock 'n' roll queen Ashley Cleveland went out on a limb - again. She put together an album of live songs, but not a live album.
These songs were all recorded live, but at various times over the years. Included are four new songs - also done live - and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter"... yep, live.
Cleveland is probably the only "Christian" artist who could include a Rolling Stones song on her album and get away with it. But, she's always disregarded industry boundaries. Does she play Christian music or is she a Christian who plays music?
Yes. To both, of course.
Her albums have songs on them that are inherently Christian (she loves the hymns) and inherently of the world ("Skin Tight" from 1993's Bus Named Desire) - and she applies her considerable vocal chops to each type with absolute ferocity. Cleveland sings as if she's singing each song for the last time and she's going to make it pay.
You Are There is a gem from start to finish. With her husband Kenny Greenberg, Cleveland and band come out on top on every song. There's only one complaint with this album: it's just not long enough.
Vocally and musically, the highlight is the title tune from her 1991 debut album, Big Town. Rolling Stone magazine called that debut disc "one of the best overlooked" albums of the year and if this version is any indication, they were right.
Paired with a few seconds of Andre Crouch's "Soon And Very Soon," "Big Town" quite simply just rocks. The song, written by Cleveland, is probably the closest thing to an autobiography she'll ever write:
I gave a few years to fantasy and a few more to drugs and drinking/I'll give what's left to some honesty in exchange for some wishful thinking/ I hope to see you in the big town/Don't lose sight of me 'til I get there.
The song is written to God and is an honest woman's account of her life. No, it hasn't been perfect -- but she knows whose she is and where her life's headed.
There's a big sky between you and me but your word is good to the letter/You sent some joy my way and a little peace/And a promise that it only gets better.
Cleveland's gravelly "take-no-prisoners" alto reminds me of what Kim Carnes could have been if she'd gone rock and roll instead of adult contemporary /country pabulum.
The title song, originally on her 1995 Lessons Of Love project (which won her a Grammy award for Best Rock Gospel album), is a 7-minute guitar and vocal bonanza. Co-written with Greenberg, this song is her interpretation of Psalm 139:
Where I cannot lift my eyes, You are there/Where I cannot find my way, You are there/Where I cannot hold my tongue, You are there/Where I have no prayer, You are there.
Phil Madeira plays some great keyboards and B-3 on this song, especially during the instrumental break. But, it's when Cleveland drops the volume on the third verse to barely more than a whisper that brings the listener in - then at just the right place the volume spikes and she's rocking again.
Of the new songs, "Lucky Never Had It So Good" and "You Don't Have To Take This From Me" are the standouts and, while it's great, "Gimme Shelter" is the weakest.
"You Don't Have To...", which Cleveland co-wrote with Pam Tillis (and Tillis included on a recent album) is just Cleveland and her acoustic guitar. It's a bare bones, stripped down, song about a woman tired of a man who won't accept her faithful love:
There are those that are unfit for commitment/Though they swear their love on bended knee/And there are those of us who think we can fix them/But you don't have to take that from me.
Cleveland knows what a good song wants: dedication, belief, emotion, talent and a total lack of fear. She delivers in aces on every count.
You Are There is nominated for a Grammy again in the Best Rock Gospel category. It certainly deserves to win, but being a live album and being up against the serious competition it is (Big Tent Revival's Amplifier, Petra's God Fixation, Audio Adrenaline's Some Kind Of Zombie, and Sixpence None The Richer's self-titled) I don't look for it to win - but it sure would restore my faith in the awards system.