It’s been 21 years since “We Are the World,” and maybe it’s surprising we haven’t seen much like it since. You know, a whole ton of rock stars, everyone from Michael Jackson to Tina Turner to Bob Dylan, singing together in a studio to play on their respective fan bases and sell a boat-load of charity-supporting CDs. Or were they tapes back then? Can’t remember.
ANGELS ON THE GROUND?
Anyway, Tony McNaboe might shy from the comparison, but the cast of local characters he’s put together to raise money for the wheelchair-bound has executed nothing short of a holiday miracle, and here’s hoping Portland and beyond buy in to this heartfelt soulfest. While McNaboe originally hoped to send the money from record sales directly to a family in Windham struggling to buy a wheelchair-compatible van, tax considerations have led him to funnel funds to the Travis Roy Foundation, which helps those with spinal cord injuries.
The tune is called “Angels on the Ground” and is in an R&B style that should be familiar for fans of McNaboe’s stellar 2003 solo album or the 2006 debut disc from Ryan McCalmon, who gets the first verse here. The backing is kept to a simple organ and drums as he sets the stage: “Some people believe there are angels on the street/They haven’t any wings and they look like you and me/And you won’t know the time or place/Might not even see their face/But there’s angels, on the ground.” From that point on, Kevin Kennie (Headstart!), McNaboe and Megan Jo Wilson, Andi Fawcett and producer Jon Wyman, Pete Giordano (Twisted Roots), Dave Gutter (Paranoid Social Club), Walt Craven (Lost on Liftoff), Doug Elder (Kingpin Wrecking Crew), and Nigel Hall take turns giving us examples of these well-meaning anonymous types and then imploring us to look for them in our everyday lives, all supported by Jon Roods (Paranoid) on bass, John Noddo on lead guitar, and Ryan Zoidis (Soulive) and Dave Noyes (Seekonk) on horns.
That might be a damn long sentence, but for a local music fan, it’s quite the thrill. Kevin Kennie sings like you’ve never heard him before, low down and in the back of his throat, definitely straining the limits of his register — also, has he been smoking a hundred cigarettes a day? Giordano gets a special bridge to the guitar solo that breaks from the R&B format into rock and is pretty much transcendent. Craven is all kinds of soft around the edges, really singing as he references his own son’s birth: “The first time that you heard him cry aloud, was the first time you heard the sound of an angel on the ground.”
But Gutter really separates himself, which is hard to do in this company. His verse, cresting on “the sky is one big halo,” leads right into chorus, which is pretty prime real estate and makes sense considering McNaboe respects Gutter (his former Rustic Overtone frontman) so much that his is the only part that McNaboe didn’t pen.
The chorus is simply sublime, full of distinguishable voices and plenty of parts and harmonies and Nigel’s Al Green impression that takes the song home is some of the best vocal work you’ll hear this year. With all the pressure in the world, McNaboe has written a timeless classic, with real feeling and broad appeal. That its sales will support a good cause is just gravy.
“ANGELS ON THE GROUND” | Big Easy, in Portland | December 22 | 207.775.2266