Vinyl Record Review

The Downings – Spiritfest (1976)

After enjoying the immense success of their “Praise Him!” live album, the Downings weren’t done blazing trails and playing around with different sounds and styles.  Their next 2 studio albums were a musical playground of creativity and originality, as they seemingly tried to reinvent themselves into a fully contemporary group.  They were stretching their creative genes and pushing musical boundaries that had never been toyed with before.  Whereas 1973 marked a turning point in the sound of the Downings, 1976 was also a point where the musical direction of the group took a marked change of direction, as the texture of the Downings’ music took on a completely different feel with this album. 

By 1976, their long-time producer and friend, Bob MacKenzie was no longer producing for the Benson Company, and I have often wondered if he had stayed around, what this album would have sounded like.  With the absence of MacKenzie, the Downings took more ownership of their music and sound and Dony McGuire (listed in the credits as “The Song Machine”), stepped up to produce this album, along with Paul Downing being listed as Associate Producer.  Paul and Dony were also a part of the re-mixing team for the album as well.  This truly was an all-encompassing labor of love for the Downings as the entire band played on the album, which was a first for the group.  Along with Dony, the Downings’ band consisted of Matt McGee playing bass, Bill Catron on drums and Cary Denigris playing guitars, and they all played on this album.  Along with the piano, Dony played all sorts of other instruments for this album, including Harpsicord, Moog, Metatron, and various other instruments, which added to the uniqueness of this recording.  Also playing percussions on the album was the Downings’ sound man, Mike Iacopelli, who also assisted with engineering the album as well.  The remaining musicians credited were those who played the brass and woodwinds, which were arranged by Buddy Skipper. 

As already mentioned, “Spiritfest” was very different from anything we’ve heard from the Downings so far.  Even the title, “Spiritfest” was unique.  Borrowed from a suggestion by Doug Oldham’s wife, Laura Lee, the Downings began titling their concerts, “Spiritfest”, and soon thereafter they released this album and titled it as such.

The first song, “People”, right off the bat, shows you that this is going to be a very different album.  As the music quietly fades in, the song has a bit of a Middle Eastern feel to it, but soon the brass section kicks in, giving it a bit of a different texture.  Written by and featuring Dony, the song and its very contemporary feel and message, sets the tone for the album before Paul (with a few lead lines by Joy) takes the lead on the song, “My Vision”, which was written by Wanda Phillips and published by the Downings.  It too has a very contemporary feel to it with its unique sounds and brass infused track and was totally different than anything the Downings had recorded up to this point.

Slowing the pace way down, Ann steps up to sing the hypnotic feel of, “Without Love”.  Published by the Downings, the song was written by Louie Winskie and Ann does an outstanding job interpreting this beautifully written lyric that perfectly sums up 1 Corinthians 13.

The tempo finally picks up to a more Southern Gospel pace, as Joy, Ann, Paul and Dony all take turns taking the lead on the song “Mary Had the Sweetest Little Lamb”, which was written by Gerald Piper.  With fun and playful piano, electric guitar and brass accents, it’s a highly enjoyable novelty type tune and is a highlight of the album before Dony gives an energetic performance on another upbeat tune, “You’ve Got the Power”.  I wish I could remember where I first heard the song growing up, but I distinctly remember hearing this as a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, and was thrilled to hear it again on this album when I got my hands on it back in the late 90s.

Side 2 starts with the Downings rendition of the Manhattan Transfer hit, “Operator”.  Manhattan Transfer’s version topped out at #22 in the Billboard charts in 1975, while the Downings’ version peaked out at #6 in November 1976 in the Singing News chart.  Filled with lots of saxophones and other horns, the song was completely different from anything being released at the time in Southern Gospel Music, and it featured an enthusiastic performance by Joy.  The song became a highly popular tune for the Downings, and I can imagine this was fun to sing in concert in front of a live audience.  The Dove Brothers enjoyed a resurgence of popularity with the song in the very early days of the group, and the song has been recorded numerous times over the years by artists from multiple genres.  While I love the Downings’ rendition, my personal favorite recording of the song is by the Lesters from their 1986 album, entitled “Legacy”.

The tempo slows down as Dony delivers a captivating performance on the classic, “It’s My Desire”.  They had just recorded the song a year earlier on their live album, “Praise Him!”, but here we enjoy a really nice studio version of the song, which actually charted briefly for the Downings, peaking at #20 in June of 1977.  I can’t decide which version I love most (live or studio), as it’s such a great song that is filled with immense emotional intensity.

Joy takes the lead on the pop sounding contemporary tune, “Where There is Darkness” (featuring sounds from the Moog or Metatron) before Ann and Paul sing the electric guitar and brass infused up-tempo tune, “Lord Keep My Feet”, which is a plea to the Lord “to keep my feet from turning back”.  It’s an enjoyable track and a highlight of the recording.

As the tempo slows back down, the album closes out with the anthem, “Let Me Sing Your Song”, which features Paul, along with some stand-out lines from Dony on the chorus.  Their last few studio albums usually closed out with an anthem or praise song, and this is a humble prayer of declaration…“Jesus let me sing Your song…I’ll sing and play for You…I’ll be Your voice, I’ll be Your hands so You can touch the world again”.  Filled with brass accents and keyboard sounds, it’s a nice closing song that fits the overall feel for the album.

As already stated, this was a very, very different album than anything else the Downings had previously released.  With its eclectic feel, it’s a montage of different sounds and styles, and despite its incredible diversity, it’s an amazingly cohesive sounding album.  It appears that early pressings of the album were released on the Heartwarming label, while later pressings were released on the Impact label, which was the Benson Company’s contemporary arm.  While, admittedly, it’s not my favorite recording by the Downings, it was a groundbreaking album that was a bit ahead of its time for the genre.  I don’t know if Southern Gospel Music was ready for this much diversity, but nonetheless, it was a “spiritfest” for the ears and the heart, and the album set the Downings apart from the average Southern Gospel group at that time, as it set the stage for what was to come in their final album, “Birthplace”, which was released in 1977.

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James Hales

James Hales, from Durham, North Carolina, has been a writer for AbsolutelyGospel.com since 2000. James is our featured reviewer and also contributes to monthly features periodically.
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