THE BLOG
10/10/2014 09:47 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

48 Hours With Delta Spirit and J.S Bach in NYC With Peter Sellars and the Berlin Phil

(Frank S hanging out back stage with the band Delta Spirit, and with my pals Jesse and Dan Russell.)

I was tired, so fucking tired! The night before last I'd been at The Paradise Club in Boston at a rock concert by Delta Spirit. Now I was in New York listening to the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach at the most coveted "two-performances-only" concert in town. No one could get tickets. I could because the lyric soprano Camilla Tilling is my friend.

The night before I'd had a back stage pass and was the guest of the bass player. My ears are still ringing. Delta Spirit is a great band. Their song "War Machine" is my new personal anthem.

War machine you can't break me,
you can't have the world I love.
I lied like the government,
pretended that pain don't exist.
They stare down the barrel of a gun.

War machine you can't break me,
you can't have the world I love.
I was so occupied, compassion I had declined.
The first world, it always gets it's way.

War machine you can't break me,
you can't have the world I love...

Watching the clock just tick,
blockhead rhetoric.
The life you've known is surely gone.
They watched as their children fell,
stories that dead men tell.
The frontless battle rages on.

War machine you can't break me,
you can't have the world I love.

War machine you can't break me,
you can't have the world I love,
you can't have the world I love,
you can't have the world I love.

Bach's message lives. The St. Matthew Passion lives on in Delta Spirit. The gospel of peace and love, lives in the passion of one of the greatest American rock and roll bands playing. The fight goes on.

Into the Wide is the new album.

At the heart of their music is percussion as it is rarely used: perfect! The bass player and drummer form the heart of the music. There are really two bands here: percussion as never heard and the music. When it all comes together this rock becomes today's classical music.

The singer has the best rock and roll voice perhaps ever, certainly ever since Robert Plant before he blew it out. And I was there!

I was a witness to art! Art matters!

The group -- Jonathan Jameson (bass/bg vocals), Brandon Young (drums/percussion), Matthew Vasquez (vocals/guitars), Kelly Winrich (multi-instrumentalist/bg vocals), and William McLaren (guitar/bg vocals).

Let me be blunt. Listen to the album!

Brandon Young is the best rock drummer I've ever heard. Matthew Vasquez has the purest most soaring range and the phlegm and gargle-gravel of Joe Cocker, when he wants it, the range of Robert Plant and the clarity of an opera singer. The tight percussion bond between bass player and drummer at the core of this band is like nothing else out there. Kelly Winrich plays the keyboard and anything else he touches so well it makes my spine tingle. William McLaren's virtuoso guitar playing is a wonder to behold. These guys are the real deal.

"Take Shelter," "War Machine," "The Wreck" are going to be rock classics, hell, every cut on this album is, or should be.

It's a shame the fashion these days is to play live so fucking loud!

Get the album downloaded at home and really listen at a volume that isn't a wall of sound, listen and you'll hear the most sensitive and thoughtful spirituality-as-music that's been on any record since The Who's Tommy.

The Delta Spirit bass player and band founder Johathan Jameson, had been to mass that morning. "I never go to anything but liturgical churches, high Anglican is what I feel comfortable with. I hate rock in worship. This is what I do for a living. I want church to be about mystery and liturgy."

I'd found a brother. We sat in the band's tour bus talking.

The next night I was with Camilla Tilling the lyric soprano I wrote about in my book Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God. I was with her husband Anders in New York. She'd gotten Genie and I tickets but at the last moment Genie could not go. She'd had a sudden problem with her vision in one eye, was fine now abut had to be checked out. Camilla had managed to get the ticket switched to the next day for me. That way when my rock-god-angel Dan Russell called me and said he wanted me to go to a concert in Boston to hear Delta Spirit I went.

That was the night I was supposed to be in New York. Camilla worked to get me there the next night.

That's why these unlikely duo of concerts were back-to-back. That's why my ears were ringing. That's why I was comparing Bach to Delta Spirit. That's why I felt the hand of God on my life, as my mother would have put it.

Delta Spirit held up to Bach. No kidding.

I came home from hearing and watching Bach's St. Matthew Passion performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in Peter Sellars' production. I'd had the pleasure of talking to Sellars at the after party Camilla got me into.

I drove home that night and on the way relived the concert again and again.

I was in the greatest city on earth listening to the greatest piece of music ever written. I was the guest of the most wonderful lyric soprano in the world. Her husband was sitting next to me and as she sang he wept. She sang:

He has done good to us all.

To the blind he gave sight,

the lame he made to walk

he tells us his Father's word.

He cast out demons,

He lifted up the afflicted

He took up sinners and cared for them.

Other than this, my Jesus has done nothing.

Camilla Tilling was singing a recitative in the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sabastian Bach. It was October 8, 2014.

The Berliner Philharmoniker was being led by Simon Rattle. Peter Sellars had directed this production and dramatization of the passion. Mark Padmore sang the Evanglilist. Christian Gerhaher sang the part of Jesus, My friend Camilla Tilling was the soprano. Magdalena Kozena was the mezzo-soprano.

The way Sellars staged this production put Camilla on stage, standing holding the hand of the evangelist who at that moment was doubling for the about to be killed, Jesus. He lay on a simple wood block as if already dead. Camilla sang the part of Mary and held his hand. The musician playing the flute part stood next to her, "So close" Camilla told me later "that I felt his breath on my neck as he played." He was accompanied by two oboes. My heart broke.

The New York Times raved:

Yet the Berlin Philharmonic's magnificent performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" on Tuesday night at the Park Avenue Armory, with the Berlin Radio Choir, the Boy Choristers of St. Thomas Church in New York and a cast of inspired vocal soloists, conducted by Simon Rattle, showed why Bach chose other ways to tell stories through music...

In other words, the long, daunting passion is a ritualized form of participatory theater. Bach wrenches you out of your comfort zone as an audience member and pulls you into this story of faith and doubt, trust and betrayal, community and mob chaos.

The director--Peter Sellars-- had dressed the singers in stark black and they moved around the stage doubling as actors in this drama-set-to-music. Bach as never heard or seen before!

The audience sat tiers of seats surrounding the stage. The chorus members took places in the audience.

Camilla's voice is so pure, so clear and she struck such a heartbroken and tragic pose of utter dejection that I was stunned into utter inner stillness. So were the two thousand other people watching. New York Jews watching the passion of Christ sung in a language--German--that had condemned their parents to death. It is a big strange world! Can the gospel survive the haters from Nazis to Martin Luther, the antisemitism implicit is the passion? Does art trump life?

This concert (that offered only two performances) was the most coveted ticket, perhaps of all time in New York. Sellars' staging, the music, the soloists, the venue of the Armory, the special stage set, let alone the after party with the artists and stars put this event beyond my wildest dreams and reach.

I am a writer-scavenger picking up scraps as I may be way outside the inner city of the art elite. This was that elite. And I was only there because I'd spilled a glass of wine on Camilla. When we met on a plane. You'll have to read my book Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God to get that story...

At the party after the event I was talking to Peter Sellars and telling him that what struck me most forcefully was his use of the women in the production. "I never realized before how Bach had turned so much of the passion story into a narrative by the women.  He gave the women the leading voice along with the evangelist." We talked about the fact that in Bach's day the women's parts were sung by boys, just as Shakespeare used boys to play women. We talked about how, nevertheless, Bach like Shakespeare, was forward thinking in the roles he wrote for women. Sellars said, "The men tell a story but he presents the women as Jesus' only friends."

I was still vibrating from the moment Camilla sang,

For love,

My Savior now will die,

Of sin he knows nothing.

So that eternal ruin

And punishment of judgment

Do not remain upon my soul.

Camilla had emailed me a few months before that night about her reaction to my book WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace. I'd cried then. I was so relieved she hadn't taken offense at me telling the story of our meeting on the plane when I was flying home from my mother's funeral. Camilla wrote that she'd always wanted her music to make her a "messenger" for something or someone greater than herself.

God.

That night she was.

She was my angel bringing me great tidings of joy.

For a dazzling moment I was deathless.

At the party I met the actor Wallace (Wally) Shawn. I always love his work and his performance in the movie Princess Bride is a staple in my family. "Do you want me to send you back to where you were? Unemployed? In Greenland?" became a line I'd use with my children.  I'd loved his work in so many other movies too like My Dinner with Andre. We talked about the role of women in the Passion and how Sellars' staging made it leap out from the page as it were in a new way. We were standing on Park Avenue at one a.m. I was headed back to my car for the drive back to Massachusetts. I'd stop for a few hours' sleep on the way having driven down on the afternoon of the concert.

Back home I drank wine with Genie. She was fine now. We listened to Delta Spirit's album Into the Wide, again and again. I kissed her. I kissed her some more.

It has been forty-four years of loving this goddess.

Why is everyone so stupid about art? Why isn't Delta Spirit the number one rock band in the world?

There is no one better and there is no one writing deeper lyrics. When the world of Bach and Rock converge in a deathless 48 hours the earth moves.

Sure I dropped some names! I met Wally Shawn!

Don't let anyone ever tell you art is dead or that contemporary music fails. It doesn't.

Delta Sprit is great art. Period.

So is Bach. Period.

Memo to great rock bands: lower the volume once in a while so people at concerts can understand that you're in the same league as Bach. Then pump it up to "eleven" (if you don't get that reference sorry, too bad for you) and kill us.

But Delta Spirit is a band made up of deep talent that needs no volume to mask its sins. Delta Spirit is a sinless, perfect in fact.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book --WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace

Available now on Amazon

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