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Of Mercy and Exodus: A Mike Farris Reader

Photo by Anthony Scarlati

It is a puzzle of many pieces, learning to truly live. A study of contrasting gravities, we pressure ourselves to work from the outside edges in, while the most telling glimpses remain obscured, patiently closer to the heart of it all. This puzzle-solving, by any name, feels like fighting a war on two fronts, a pyrrhic effort in the least. To remain devoted in the face of such odds, much less to make peace with the matter, is the first sign that the war could actually be won.

Yet, moving towards wholeness is not truly about winning a war. Piecing one’s self together is rarely about meeting callous deadlines or delivering a set result. Instead, it is sobering to consider that we are never actually given all the pieces at one time. The beauty of this life is that we are most blessed when we spare a piece of ourselves in the aid of another. Such is the nature of Mercy, a way of life that seems to lose value by the day. But Mercy is the way of true artists, demanding it from the very same people they so willingly offer it to. That communion of sorts often lays the road toward something a little sweeter, a little brighter, a little less painful. It is truly the Mercy of Exodus.

Mike Farris is a man, no less an artist, well versed in the Mercy of Exodus. Documents of his suffering exist beside testimonies of his rebirth, and he seems to care little to posture either one before the other. Instead, he exudes a conviction to the here and now, and a commitment to something more righteous than his words alone can convey. When so compelled, his instinct flips the switch and he begins to testify- not with the tent-show vanity of modern televangelists or the vacuous emoting of modern culture, but with the combustion of a man on fire, begging for a bath.

To witness such burning is to feel such heat. It cannot be helped- when such intensity is met with rapt attention, the unspeakable gets spoken. That moment is the Exodus of Mercy, and though many artists have had many names for that kind of transcendence, it remains the providence of all that is soulful in artistic pursuit.

An act of sacrifice, so to speak, is well-aided by proper setting, and on a short burst through the upper Midwest, Mike Farris settled in for an intimate Sunday night at the Flying Mango in Des Moines. The Mango is a culinary house of worship, where chef Mike Wedeking and his partner Suzanne Van Englehoven alchemize cultural savvy with continental daring; think smoked duck tacos with blueberry salsa. When paired with a finer appreciation for roots music, a tasty altar is soon set.

Closing the distance between brokenness and deliverance, Farris began the night by wrapping himself around a melancholy “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”, a gospel standard he first rearranged for his Salvation in Lights studio effort of 2007. The night would feature a number of songs off that project, including the next song, his version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Cain’t No Grave”. The first belter of the night, Farris quickly escalated into both an excitement and a range that most men, or women, will never find.

Starting “Sit Down Servant:” by lamenting the difficulty in mounting tours with his ten-piece Roseland Rhythm Revue, Farris began to self-depreciate and mimic the legendary McCrary sisters, gospel family royalty included in his Revue, who add a richness that one man cannot compete with. Smile in tow, he chided the timidity of the audience choir, but then turned earnest when asking if anyone could help him. To his surprise, Farris was soon joined by renowned area talent, Tina Haase Findlay of bella soul who had been politely dragged to the stage by Wedeking [Editor’s note: she is the author’s wife and musical collaborator]. Briefly feeling each other out, Haase Findlay was soon adding sweetness to Farris’ ascension, and the give & take got the crowd to lean a little closer, smile a little wider, cheer a little louder.

One of the great pleasures of a solo acoustic performance is when the intimacy becomes fearlessness. Finding his pace early, he turned confessional and kept rolling through albums cuts and their histories. He then began to offer sketches and visions for his new record, near half done at that point. And the fearlessness got real rather quickly when, after a moving version of the standard “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” he hushed himself , unfurling what ended up being perhaps the masterpiece of the night.

Recounting how he was devastated each time he heard this particular song, the truth crawling across his face and through his voice, Farris admitted defeat when he tried to then sing it for his wife. He simply could not climb its summit. Such a striking thought- to so deeply feel the essence of something, you are utterly crushed by it. But when he was going over songs to collect for his new record his wife reminded him of that song that meant so much. And it was her encouragement that forced Farris to unravel Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now”, and his haunting-yet-joyful take hits the very heart of what Gospel should be- bottom line, it’s still Good News.

JB Lenoir’s “Jonah and the Whale”: and his own “Selah Selah” and “Devil Don’t Sleep Tonight” were late highlights, and after segues through off-the-cuff versions of Skip James’ “DC Center Blues”, “That’s How I Got to Memphis” by Tom T. Hall, and Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster”, he began wrapping his marathon set by calling Haase Findlay back to the stage for “Since I Laid My Burden Down.” Tight but loose, the lady pushed him a bit harder and Farris ran with it for a while. As she walked away, he asked her if she wanted to do another, and he fell into “Wade In The Water”, which brought another, even wider smile to the shouter’s lips.

Bringing the dynamic down, Farris observed, gesturing crowd-ward, “there’s something magical that gets released when we make music together”, and the assembled responded with a glad volume. As the soft-strained first line of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” came bubbling, and the crowd fell in naturally, Farris’ observation proved to be an invocation in hindsight, and the crowd stayed with him through “This Little Light Of Mine.” Closing with his uptempo arrangement of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”, the room witnessed another roller coast set of vocal gymnastics that were as much Otis Redding love song as Sunday Night tent revival.

And that’s the wonder of what, and whom, Mike Farris truly is. He is a tapestry woven of the sacred and the secular, tilting on an old world’s balance of grace and conviction. That he sings like a freed man, fingering his scars all the while, is a big part of his charisma. A term often applied, often unkindly, to those who share his beliefs outwardly if not inwardly, charisma is what it takes to be remembered. History is full of those who remain unforgotten, for myriad reasons, but one gets the sense Farris isn’t doing this to be remembered by the faceless masses. Quite the opposite- he does it to fully remember the face in the mirror.

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