Review: Rick Hopkins concert

It was a moment of laughter and deep irony… 

Two songs into his concert on Sunday, Rick Hopkins paused to ask the audience, “Is this OK?  You never know what you’re going to get from a small-town guy.”  The crowd’s laughter affirmed that Hopkins’ performance was already miles beyond “OK”.  The irony was that, although the concert was held in his little hometown, there is nothing small about Hopkins’ skill or his ambitious approach to music.

When the laughter died, Hopkins warned that his songs often talk about God, and his next song was a prayer of sorts, but more like a wrestling match than a church service.

I can’t pretend to be pleased with you
and the silence you’ve made
But if this is how it is and how it’s gonna be
then the silence is where I’ll stay

Hopkins lives in Saranac with his wife and six children.  He has produced an impressive collection of music, including the albums Still Frame (2007), Where We Are and Where We Long To Be (2008), If Only It Was Now (2012),  The Remembrance (2014), and Where the Road Will Lead Us (2015).

Though his recordings feature a full band, often with a driving beat and soaring electric guitars, tonight Hopkins is alone.  His complex, riff-driven songs are carried ably by his acoustic guitar.  His remarkable vocal power and range tell each story with strong emotion.  At times, his voice is an anguished but earnest cry.  At other times, it is quiet and clear, like the stillness after an earthquake.

Hopkins’ lyrics tackle questions that ring deep in the human experience. He is a bull in the china shop of pat religious sentiment, knocking aside the false and fragile, pushing on toward whatever remains.  He reminds you of Job, the ancient bible character who asked of God, “Why do you hide your face?”  He reminds you of old king David who asked, “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?”

The concert began with It’s Not Over, which spoke of discouragement and the need for friends to suffer alongside.  “This life is wearing thin. I feel it in my bones and in my skin.”  The line “sit in the dust with you” alluded again to Job, whose friends failed him.

What I Don’t Know expressed a tension that appears in much of Hopkins’ music – the difficulty of sensing God’s presence despite his longing for that.  The song concludes, “What I don’t know… becomes you.”

Mercy and Grace also contrasted episodes of God’s apparent silence with Hopkin’s belief that God was, in fact, both present and active in his life.  “Only you could leave me this way, with weapons in hand and a bag over my face.”

With and Without described the paradox of family, in which the frictions of life together are contrasted with our need for one another.

Lord Be More Real was, as Hopkins described, “an old-time country song” with an engaging melody and simple come-to-Jesus message.

Restless Soul expressed the idea that life can be difficult and feel very long.

Lonely Heart affirmed that “You’re not alone” and encouraged the weary to keep on and “listen for the sound of knocking at your door.”

Other songs included Find My Way, Praying for the Dawn, Death is Not the End, Hold My Hand, and Never Grow Old.

I admire Hopkins’ music and honesty.  His “Hold My Hand” (Where the Road Will Lead Us) has long been a favorite of mine, clearly demonstrating his melodic sense, strong guitar skills and beautiful voice.  Much of his music is available free of charge from his website: http://www.rickhopkins.com.

The concert was attended by about 150 people and held in the Saranac High School Auditorium.  As the evening progressed, Hopkins talked freely about his personal fears and disappointments, and it became apparent that he is, after all, a small-town guy who loves his neighbors and believes that, when all that is false and fragile is knocked aside, something strong and true remains.

Danny

I study it, now that it is too late, the dark jewel of an eye, huge and liquid and gleaming.  There are furrows in the grass where his sharp hooves tore the earth a moment ago when he fell.

He is a giant, five times my size, with power to launch himself over obstacles and return gracefully to earth, often wagging his head as if to say, is there nothing higher?  His shining coat glows red in the sun and his thundering hoofbeats send vibrations through the dirt.

He knows his strength and my weakness.  He knows me to carry treats in my pocket and when I don’t deliver, he merrily knocks me backward with a flick of his massive head.  He could easily destroy me, and yet I put my daughter on his back.  We are safe because he chooses for us to be safe.

But things have gone badly for Danny.  Two weeks ago, he began kicking at his side and twisting his head to see what was biting him there.  We brought doctors and medicine, and for a few days he seemed to be himself again, but the blood test said cancer.  On Thursday morning, I found him in agony, his coat sodden with sweat and grime, trotting desperately around the pasture, trying to outrun his cruel and invisible enemy.

We called the vet and trudged into the pasture, carried his halter this one last time.  Even now, in his misery, he is careful of us, careful not to step on us or knock us down as we clumsily try to corral him, and he urgently tries to escape. 

We took a job at the barn, my daughter and I, when we bought Danny.  We feed and water the horses, lead them from their pastures to their stalls. I knew little about horses when we began, but I always admired them.  If they had been winged horses, they would have seemed only slightly more mythical to me.  

How have such creatures come to exist, so graceful and immense, so fearsome when they choose to fight, yet who set aside their great strength to obey us?  And how is it that we find ourselves in such a world as this, so richly carpeted in green, extravagant in air and light, filled with beings more diverse and majestic than we could imagine?  If you say this is all a happy accident, I will wonder if you’re paying attention because we spend our lives trying to make good things and we know it is hard. Luck does not make horseshoes, let alone horses, let alone verdant worlds.

Well, Grace has somehow gotten in front of Danny and, rather than trample her, he jerks to a stop and she quickly slips on the halter.  We lead him to a quiet place.  She wraps her arms around his head and talks to him as the vet pulls something from his pocket. 

A few minutes later, Danny is gone and I am looking at the furrows in the grass where he fell and the great jewel of an eye that has gone dull.  Grace spreads herself over his still body and weeps and I try to understand why I feel I have lost a friend. 

Only a horse.  Only an animal that flew without wings, on whose back Grace flew, too, the wind whipping through her hair, knowing he would use his strength to bring her safely home. Only a horse, but I would give much to look in his eye again.