For the last decade of Decembers, singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson has zigzagged the country with a rotating cast of musical friends to present his “Behold The Lamb Of God” Christmas concerts. Described as “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ,” this unified collection of songs details the events leading up to, surrounding and following the birth of Jesus. In what has become a tradition of his in the last 6 years, Andrew plays one of the tour stops at The Ryman with an extended cast of special guests. While it is definitely a guaranteed night of incredible musicianship, great storytelling and more than a few laughs, the biggest impact of the show is the deeply refreshing feeling that washes over you as the night unfolds. It takes a rare and special gift to be able to tell a story that will make your audience so keenly aware of both their inescapable need and their absolute hope. To say that the show is more than just inspiring songwriting and virtuoso playing is an understatement, but it’s very true. “Behold The Lamb Of God” is an invitation, a journey and a celebration that effortlessly builds into a soul-stirring crescendo. If the pressures and busyness of the Christmas season have you feeling like you’re holding your breath under water, “Behold The Lamb Of God” feels like that first deep inhale after cracking the surface.
The first half of the concert is done “in the round” with Andrew and an assortment of his friends trading off on songs and stories. For the first round, he started with “Dancing In The Minefields” from his most recent album, Counting Stars. He was joined on the full band version by Andy Gullahorn (acoustic), Ben Shive (piano), Cason Cooley (bass), Paul Eckberg (drums), Todd Bragg (percussion), Gabe Scott (acoustic) and Andrew Osenga (electric). Next up was piano player/songwriter/producer extraordinaire Ben Shive playing a new song of his that I think was called “EGBDF.” While I’m not sure of the name, I am sure that I love any song that references Super Mario Brothers 3 and Sgt. Pepper’s. Andrew Osenga played “Memory” from his Choosing Sides album and the solo electric guitar ode to his grandparents was beautiful and moving. Label mate Jason Gray was next to wow the audience with a brand new song about how the literal name of God may actually just be the sound of our breath. Super-talented husband and wife duo Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn backed each other up next with Jill singing and playing piano on “Good Things” from her album of the same name and Andy hilariously explaining why he felt compelled to change the lyrics to their version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from their recently released Christmas album. Randall Goodgame was joined by a bluegrass band for “Happy Birthday Jesus” and then they stayed out and played an impressively rowdy Irish jig. For the second round, Ben Shive played “The Last Time For Everything,” an encouraging song written for a friend struggling with cancer. Andrew Osenga was joined by Cason Cooley for “I’ll Be Home Soon,” absolutely thrilling us fans of their previous band, The Normals. Jason Gray returned with “I Am New” from Everything Sad is Coming Untrue. Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn did two more songs from their new Christmas album, “You Came Down” and the stunning “I Will Find A Way” accompanied by a cello. Everyone joined in with Andrew to close the “in the round” portion with a driving rendition of “The Reckoning.”
After intermission, Andrew lead the audience in a resonating “It Is Well With My Soul” to signal everyone that the main portion was about to start. In addition to all of the musicians I previously mentioned, Andrew was also joined by a six piece string section to play his Behold The Lamb Of God album from beginning to end. A conventional song by song retelling of this section can’t come close to conveying the rhythm, swell and force of the evening, but I’ll do my best to describe it. “Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come” serves as a perfect introduction to the concert and sets the stage for the story that is to come. The actual storytelling portion starts in “Passover Us,” a song that relates the Isrealites’ captivity and freedom from Pharaoh and introduces the elements of sin, sacrifice and mercy. The grandly sweeping “So Long, Moses” tells of the many kings and prophets and their prophecies of a Messiah. While Andrew is mostly described as folk singer, the orchestral feel and oddly metered timing of this song show the wide range of his creative talents. “Deliver Us” captures the pleading and questioning that took place during the 400 year period of God’s silence. Over the years there have been many guest vocalists for this song and this year Jason Gray awesomely handled it. Andrew Peterson and Andrew Osenga’s combined vocal for God’s response on the final line of the song has a beautifully haunting effect. His instrumental “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” impressively blends mandolin, hammered dulcimer and violin with the acoustic guitars for a nice reflective moment. As the story creeps into the New Testament section of the Bible, “Matthew’s Begats” humorously goes through the genealogy of Jesus. Andrew flubbed the words a little on the last verse of this one, but if you’ve ever heard the song, you’ll understand that it was bound to happen eventually. “It Came To Pass” reflects on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and “Labor Of Love” details the actual settings around Jesus’ birth in an honest and authentic way. Jill Phillips handles the vocal on this one and it’s hands down my favorite song from Behold The Lamb Of God. Allowing a moment to meditate, “The Holly And The Ivy” is another gorgeous full band instrumental that showcases the metric ton of collective creativity of everyone involved. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” is a hymn from the 1700’s whose lyrics tell of the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth. The hallelujah’s in the chorus of this one provide a nice burst before the subdued reverence of “Behold The Lamb Of God.” The combined vocals and harmonies on this song really drive home the collective thought that we’re all in need and we’re all given the same rescue. “The Theme Of My Song” closes everything out by revisiting all of the songs and amazingly weaving together portions of each one for a swirling build up that hits it’s apex in a rousing round of choruses. After a thunderous applause, Andrew lead everyone in a capella versions of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow (The Doxology)” as the artists discreetly left the stage. I’ll never forget the sound of our collective voices filling The Ryman like that. With Behold The Lamb Of God, Andrew reminds us all that the Christmas story doesn’t just start with Jesus being born. Everything that lead up to it and our involvement in it, or rather His involvement in us, should be the true source of any and all celebrating that goes on this time of year. Thank you to Andrew and his incredible cast of cohorts for a night of reflection, recharging and renewal soundtracked by some of the most creative and uplifting music these ears, and more importantly this heart, have ever heard.