Heaven Sent?

All of them are devout Christians. Many of their songs reflect themes of devotion, temptation and salvation. They play a lot of gigs at churches and Bible study groups. And yes, a line in one of their most popular songs goes: "I can see Jesus hanging on the cross / He came looking for the lost."

But don't confine Houston's Caedmon's Call to that nebulous genre known as Christian rock, or the only Bible-thumping you might get is a worn copy of the Good Book coming down across your knuckles. Gently, of course.

"We didn't really know a lot about the CCM [contemporary Christian music] market until recently," says Derek Webb, singer/guitarist for the band. "We were not interested in it and didn't follow it. In fact, we wanted to stay separate from it. And the majority of the industry, even today, still isn't interested in good music."

If Christian music were judged by the same standards as other genres, Webb believes, it would, in turn, hold CCM artists to higher standards of quality. "It's a big joke, like having the Dove Awards [CCM's version of the Grammys]. Instead of separating ourselves and having our own award shows, radio stations and record stores, we should just concentrate more on putting out better-quality songs.

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"If anybody asks us what type of music we are, we just tell them we're a folk band. It's easier."

Indeed, the largely acoustic folk-pop of Caedmon's Call -- lilting, mellow, slightly melancholy and always reflective -- has a lot more in common with Toad the Wet Sprocket or the Indigo Girls than with Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith. And it certainly shares no common ground with the screeching, animated caricatures that channel-surfers check out for laughs on TBN. Bolstered by the recent mainstream crossover success of Christian-based acts such as Jars of Clay and Kirk Franklin, Caedmon's Call feels that their already sizable national following can only increase with the recent release of Intimate Portrait, an "enhanced CD" of amazing breadth in which the five audio tracks are only a small portion of the eye-popping package.

The enhanced aspect of Intimate Portrait allows cyberheads to view video footage of four of the five songs, flip through archival photos and interviews and learn almost anything one could possibly want to know about the band. One of the CD's more impressive features involves a virtual Houston Metro bus, which pulls onto the screen (in front of a Houston skyline) carrying each band member on a seat. Simply click on that person's head, and they talk to you in a way that's quite eerie, especially if you've just been sitting across a table from the actual individual.

Music-wise, Intimate Portrait includes two new songs ("The Truth," "Piece of Glass"), new versions of favorites ("Bus Driver," "April Showers") and a minor radio hit ("Hope to Carry On"). As is true of their previous full-length CD, the songs on Intimate Portrait have a spiritual bent for the faithful, but are on an equal footing with any articulate folk-based rock heard in small clubs around the country. And that's just part of the group's crossover appeal. By touring heavily on the university circuit, Caedmon's Call chides the hypocrisy of more conservative religious leaders who believe that CCM-type groups should play only in houses of the holy and venues that would never have concertgoers waiting in line for a beer.

"College students have always been our peer group, and that's who we want to play for. We will never lose focus on that," says percussionist Garrett Buell. "A lot of people are using [Christian] music as a platform for their ministry. They're not interested in writing and performing good songs. We are."

The fact that Caedmon's Call interpret their religion and their career more liberally than some others in their field isn't so surprising. But what might come as more of a shock is just how far that freedom of thought stretches.

"Everybody and every band has their own respective world-views and biases. Live are Buddhists, Marilyn Manson are Satanists, and that's their right," Webb says. "And we don't want to be any different from either of them as far as songwriting. Except that we come from the viewpoint of the evangelical Christian."

It's a viewpoint that they don't mind sharing with members of their generally college-age audiences -- and at a time when many young adults who have been brought up in religious households face their first real-world tests of faith. Still, the band tries not to push its beliefs on anyone.

"They're told not to do things because it's against their religion, but they're not told why," Buell says. "And let's face it, they're experiencing a lot of things and meeting a lot of people that they wouldn't [meet] at home with their parents."

Webb concurs. "The first time Christians should hear about other religions and beliefs is not in freshman philosophy classes. They need to be prepared," he says. "Otherwise, it's the faith of their parents that is expected of them, and not theirs."

Caedmon's Call assembled in 1992 at Texas Christian University, where close friends Cliff Young (vocals, guitar), Aaron Tate and Danielle Glenn (vocals) began playing original music on campus with a revolving cast of players that also included Todd Bragg (drums). Early on, the performance-shy Tate relegated himself to various off-stage duties, and he continues to write a good chunk of the band's material, along with Young, Webb and Glenn.

"Aaron is one of the most unbelievable songwriters I've ever heard, but he sings like Kermit the Frog," says Webb, who, like Buell, bassist Aric Nitzberg and organist Randy Holsapple, came aboard a bit later in Caedmon's Call's evolution.

The band took its name from Caedmon, a seventh- or eighth-century figure who, according to legend, would run away whenever called upon to sing in public -- that is, until God got a hold of him. From then on, whenever Caedmon opened his mouth, his voice was so heavenly that no one else could duplicate it. The band lineup was pretty much secure by 1995, when Caedmon's Call recorded the 12-song release My Calm, Your Storm and a subsequent EP, I Just Don't Want Coffee. Combined, the two releases sold a respectable 40,000 copies. When not touring various parts of the nation by bus, the band honed its chops with local performances at Second Baptist Church on Woodway.

A breakthrough for the band came in 1996, when Musician magazine proclaimed them one of the year's best unsigned bands. Soon enough, the group had inked a deal with Warner Brothers' Christian subsidiary Warner Alliance, thanks, in no small part, to W.A. artist Wayne Watson's son Neal, who hipped label reps to the band. Earlier this year, Caedmon's Call recorded its self-titled debut CD in Decatur, Georgia, with producer Don McCollister (R.E.M., Indigo Girls). What happened next took everyone by surprise: Within the space of a single week in the spring of '97, Caedmon's Call bolted to the number one slot on both Billboard's Contemporary Christian and Heatseekers charts. Not long thereafter, the single "Lead of Love," would become a number one Christian-radio hit -- no small feat for a relatively unknown band of twentysomething churchgoers.

Yet, even with all that success, the group hasn't lost touch with its congregation. Through a band-run web site (www.caedmons-call.com), a Warner Alliance site (wbr.com/caedmonscall) and their own e-mail (ecaedmon@aol.com), the members of Caedmon's Call regularly chat with fans from all over the world. "Most of the time, it's not even about the music," Webb says. "I get into a lot of serious discussions with people about anything you can name."

And while we're on the subject of name games, one member of Caedmon's Call may be changing her name in the credits of the band's next release. Young and Glenn, who have known each other since they were kids -- when they first performed opposite each other in a production of Bye, Bye Birdie at Second Baptist Church -- got hitched last month in a ceremony that included a nuptial jam with the rest of the group.

"The kids get back from their honeymoon just before Christmas," Webb chuckles.

After that, the band will tour the country in support of Intimate Portrait through the spring, and perhaps head to Europe in the summer.

"Right now, the band is exactly where we want it to be, and we want to play in front of as many people as possible -- whatever their [religious] feelings are," Webb concludes. "After all, the reason Jesus was able to reach the world is because he was out there in it himself. I mean, he hung out with everybody.

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