On June 29th, 2019, I, along with my older brother and fellow REO contributor Mike Lytle, my three boys, and his oldest son joined 450 or so other music fans for an experience most of us believed would never happen. We all journeyed to New Hope Community Church in Brentwood, Tennessee for a concert that still feels like something out of a dream. WhiteHeart was performing for the first time in years. But, it was more than just a performance of WhiteHeart that brought us all there, though that would have been enough. It was a concert in honor of Freedom, WhiteHeart’s classic 1989 release.
I was prepared for something special. I was not prepared for what we actually experienced. The concert shattered my expectations in every conceivable way.
I’ve asked my brother (and our boys) to join me as we discuss what the night was like, what our favorite moments were, and other things that we feel are worth celebrating. We hope we can capture even a little bit of the magic we felt that night.
Our history with WhiteHeart
(Phill Lytle) Let’s kick this off with a big picture sort of question. Mike, I know the answer to this but our readers might not: What is your connection to WhiteHeart and Freedom?
(Mike Lytle) As a missionary kid growing up outside of the United States it was difficult to get our hands on music, especially music we wanted to listen to. I remember our parents having an order form of sorts from a Christian record label that was specifically for missionaries. They told us to order something and none of the choices were very appealing. Then I read a bio for a band called WhiteHeart and their album Don’t Wait for the Movie. It said it was the alternative for the MTV generation. The fact that MTV was mentioned at all sold me on it even though at 11 or 12 years of age I had never really even watched MTV!
A couple of years later the older brother of a friend had the CD of Freedom. He was blasting it really loud at their house when we were playing in the back yard. I remember thinking the song “Over Me” was the coolest thing I had ever heard. He made us a copy of the CD onto a cassette, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Phill, any thoughts of our early days of listening to WhiteHeart?
(Phill Lytle) We were big Petra fans around that time, but Don’t Wait for the Movie felt different from anything Petra had done. It had a big production with incredibly loud drums and creative musical dynamics. I also loved Rick Florian’s voice from the beginning. He quickly became my favorite singer and has kept that spot ever since.
The thing I remember the most about Freedom is that our copied cassette didn’t have the end of “Let It Go” or any of I’ll Meet You There” on it. The tape cut off before the incredible guitar ending of “Let It Go”. We just knew something awesome was about to happen in that song but we didn’t find out what it was until sometime later.
I’m still stunned that the MTV thing convinced you. I’m glad it did, though.
Let’s stick to our history with Freedom a little bit longer before we get to our thoughts about the concert. I’ve said my two cents about the album, which can be read here. What about you? What are/were your impressions of the album?
Thoughts about Freedom
(Mike Lytle) I’ve been a WhiteHeart fan for a long time, but I have never considered them my favorite group the way you do. Freedom, on the other hand, is a different story. For at least the last 20 years or so I have ranked this as my all-time favorite album. It has more of a timeless feel than most anything else that came out in the late 1980s, or really anything in any era for that matter.
So many of the songs continue to build and get better and better as they go. At least five times on the record they could have ended a song a minute or two before they did and the song would have felt complete. Instead, they decided to keep playing and make these songs unforgettable. I think I will stop there since you pretty much covered everything else in your tribute!
Moving on to the show itself. What were you thinking leading up to it? What were your expectations?
(Phill Lytle) Honestly, I was really nervous. I had only seen WhiteHeart in concert twice in my life. Both times in the mid-90s. (They were great both times, by the way.) I never saw the Freedom iteration of the band. I had high expectations for this concert since they were celebrating and playing songs from my favorite album ever, but I also realized this specific grouping of the band hadn’t played together in nearly 30 years. My hope was that they wouldn’t be rusty.
In all the lead-up to the concert, the guys from the band never announced who would be playing bass and drums. I was worried they were going to be forced to bring in outside musicians who wouldn’t be able to do the songs justice.
But, I was also incredibly excited. I knew that even if the band was a little rusty it would still be a memorable night. I’ve wanted to hear many of these songs live for the majority of my life and I knew this might end up being my only chance.
So, I think we are finally ready to talk about the concert itself. Before we get to the main event – the band playing songs from Freedom – what are your thoughts and impressions of the format they used for the concert? (For those reading who did not attend the show, the concert was split in half with the first half consisting of lots of talking about the band, the album, and their relationships with one another, and the different guys playing some songs individually or as duos.)
The prelude to the concert
(Mike Lytle) Going into it we didn’t have a lot of information to go on. All we knew for sure was that three of the six band members who played on the album would be there and that the show would last roughly from 7:30-11:00 PM. I could not imagine that guys who had not toured together for 30 years would play for three and a half hours (and they didn’t), but we really didn’t know what to expect.
I am with you that what we got was more than I hoped for. Having an emcee to take us through the evening. Hearing the band members reminisce about how they came to WhiteHeart as well as what they have been up to over the last 30 years was great. Seeing the videos and pictures from back in the day, hearing fan testimonials, all of it was great. I already knew a lot of what we heard, but there was still plenty that was new to me.
(Phill Lytle) I feel exactly the same. Our younger boys were not as thrilled by all the talking and reminiscing, but I loved every second of it: Hearing Gersh (Mark Gersmehl) talking about how the band started and giving a huge shout out to Gloria Gaither was very cool. Seeing Gordon Kennedy and Tommy Sims perform their Grammy-winning song of the year, Change the World was definitely a highlight. Seeing Rick do all the typical Rick stuff. That guy is all energy all the time.
One of the biggest surprises to me was having Bart Millard from MercyMe as the emcee. I especially enjoyed seeing him fan-boy out when he talked about the band and the album. It’s always cool to hear other people, particularly musicians, acknowledge the greatness of something I have loved for a very long time.
Everything that came before the actual concert was great. The fans loved it, and the band members seemed to really be enjoying themselves. I’m very glad they included that as part of the evening’s festivities. But, all of that would have been rendered a bit disappointing if they had not given us the final hour of the show – the full band performance of songs from Freedom.
I want to get your reaction to the concert; but, before I do that, I will say a few things upfront about it. Once I knew bassist Tommy Sims was there (when he played on stage with Gordon), I assumed drummer Chris McHugh would be there as well. That meant that 5 of the 6 members of the Freedom band would be performing. My nervousness about the whole thing really went away. Even so, I was not expecting them to sound as good as they did. I realize I am biased, but it was an incredible show. The band sounded great. They played with energy and confidence and were clearly having a great time. For a group of guys who are not all that young anymore, they could still rock with the best of them.
What about you? What did you think about the actual concert portion of the night – the main event?
(Mike Lytle) The concert itself was great. I wondered when they came out how the energy would be and how these 30-year-old songs would sound live. After the opening song “Bye Bye Babylon” I wondered no more. The energy was great, and it sounded better than I would have hoped for. Technically the only complaint I had was that Mark’s mic was not loud enough; so, on the couple songs where he did some lead vocals, it was not as easy to hear. It was obvious they had rehearsed and were ready for this moment.
We assumed they would play the Freedom album, so the songs themselves were not really a surprise, although they did mix up the order a bit. I do wish we could have heard more than eight songs though. Even though it was late, and I am old, I could have stuck around for several more songs!
(Phill Lytle) I agree with all of this. They sounded amazing. They were joined by guitarist Scott Bernard (tours with Kenny Loggins), who did a great job filling out the sound. I loved everything they played; but, if I have to pick some highlights of the show, I would say that “Bye Bye Babylon”, “Let the Kingdom Come”, and “The River Will Flow” really blew me away. It was cool that Bart Millard joined them and sang some lead on “The River Will Flow”. (I might have gotten a little choked up during that song.)
But above all of that, having the wonderful opportunity to see this band play these songs live, was a dream come true. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve dreamed and thought about what it would be like for most of my life. That is a high bar to set for a concert. They easily cleared that bar. It was a night I will never forget.
Final thought: The encore version of “Over Me” was so good. The regular version was good as well but getting to hear one of my favorite songs of all-time twice, and in two different forms, was almost too much for me to handle.
Mike, any final comments before we wrap this up?
(Mike Lytle) One big thing that I took away from this night was confirmation or validation of what I knew to be true. We have loved this album for a long time. I know I was young when I first heard it, but I listen to a lot of music and have always felt like my appreciation for Freedom was much more than nostalgia. So, to see so many people come from all over the country (some even came from outside the country) for this event was great, but it was more than that.
We got to hear legendary producer Brown Bannister talk about how proud he was of the guys during the making of this album and how he knew it was something special. We heard guitarist Gordon Kennedy talk about how even though he went on to write Grammy-winning songs for Eric Clapton, and tour with Peter Frampton and Garth Brooks he still gets stopped all the time by fans asking him about his work on the Freedom album. I didn’t need to hear all this to know how special Freedom was, but it was still nice to see how it impacted other people the way it impacted us.
(Phill Lytle) I can’t say it any better than that.
Our boys chime in
I asked our four sons who attended the concert with us a few questions. I kept it simple since I knew they wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time writing answers on their summer break. We will list the boys by their age:
What was your favorite song the band performed?
- 16: “Over Me”
- 14: “Invitation”
- 13: “Let the Kingdom Come”
- 10: “Sing Your Freedom”
What was your favorite part of the show before the band performed?
- 16: Gordon and Tommy’s song.
- 14: When Gordon Kennedy and Tommy Sims played together.
- 13: When Tommy and Gordon sang.
- 10: The video with Tommy Sims.
Who was your favorite band member?
- 16: Gordon Kennedy
- 14: Tommy Sims
- 13: Rick Florian.
- 10: Tommy Sims
Any other comments?
- 14: Best musically performed song: “Let the Kingdom Come”.
- 13: It was good. Really Good. (Doing his best Nacho Libre impersonation.)
“It was good. Really good.” That says it all. Almost. If the band had any doubts the show would be good, or that the fans would show up, or that it would be worth it, I hope those doubts were completely erased. The show was amazing. The fans showed up and loved every second of it. And it was entirely worth it.
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