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Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo

by Rich and Laura Lynch

The band Jars Of Clay (Dan Haseltine - vocals, Charlie Lowell - piano/keyboards, Stephen Mason - lead guitar and Matthew Odmark - rhythm guitars) may have left the circus that is the CCM music machine and the snare-filled world of evangelical minded rock and roll. But, they did return to one of their most critically-acclaimed albums when they hosted a special 20th anniversary celebration of If I Left the Zoo on Saturday, February 16, 2019 at their Gray Matter digs in Nashville, Tennessee. Jars played two sets in the homey confines of the studio.

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
Jars Of Clay play two at Gray Matter in Nashville, TN in 2019.

If I Left The Zoo was Jars' third album. It was a stylistic shift away from the lush sound of Much Afraid. It explored more diverse and quirky pop/rock sounds with folk overtones. Keyboard player Charlie Lowell was prominently featured on this record. Due to the influence of producer Dennis Herring and drummer Ben Mize, If I Left The Zoo also had more of a Counting Crows vibe. This album had several Christian radio singles including "Unforgetful You" which was showcased in the soundtrack to the 1999 film Drive Me Crazy.

Before presenting the pivotal platter from start to finish, band members replied to questions that had been submitted via social media. We learned that If I Left The Zoo was recorded in Iowa in the middle of winter. At that time, the guys were struggling to find an anchor for this album. In addition they were dealing with their own personal conflicts. Steven confessed that he did not consider himself that good of a guitar player to have enjoyed the success that he had up to that point. Mason said working with the producer was helpful, but, then joked that those were expensive guitar lessons. One fan asked about the song "Sad Clown". Dan shared that it was about him wrestling with the outward appearance of Christianity and what it means to be part of the faith community. Additional commentary was added between tracks but the first set was concise as the studio had to be cleared out so folks waiting outside for the 9:00 p.m. show could come inside.

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
Jars Of Clay - Dan Haseltine.

In this intimate space one could really appreciate all the extra elements (accordion, bells, mandolin and percussion) of If I Left The Zoo. Right from the opening number "Goodbye, Goodnight" their harmonies were still heavenly. After a colorful-keyboard heavy "Collide", a fan declared "still got it" and the guys sure did. "No One Love Me Like You" was another prime example of the diverse textures and tones that made this record so rich. They closed with a nuanced "River Constantine" with no encore.

Saturday was a celebration of the band who as you may recall met at Greenville College (IL) in the early 1990's. In 1994, the four-piece submitted a demo to a talent competition run by the Gospel Music Association. They were selected as finalists and won the contest. At the same time, back in Greenville, they had released the same demo. The buzz from both led to offers from record labels. So, Jars Of Clay dropped out of school to move to Music City.

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
Jars Of Clay - Stephan Mason.

They signed with Essential Records and started recording their first self-titled studio album. After hearing the guys Adrian Belew of progressive rock band King Crimson offered to produce them. Adrian added his skills to two songs: "Liquid" and "Flood". Although Jars was called a Christian group the single "Flood" began to climb the secular charts, so Silvertone Records (Essential's parent company) heavily promoted the song, turning it into one of the biggest mainstream hits ever by a band on a Christian label. This was both a battle and a blessing. Now, they were expected to uphold a certain image under that moniker which resulted in some backlash when they opened for acts such as Matchbox Twenty and Sting. This would be an ongoing challenge for Jars Of Clay and this theme was touched upon at If I Left The Zoo show.

Like the cover of "Zoo" the elephant in the room is the ongoing, long-term status of the unit as a working outfit. When Charlie took some time to detail the favorite drummers he has played with over the years with Jars, he mentioned that this evening's stickman might be the last to play these songs. To which guitarist Stephen Mason replied,

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
Jars Of Clay - Matthew Odmark.

"Wow, that went downhill fast."

But, all joking aside - it's not like they've been completely inactive, either. Jars Of Clay have started a tradition of playing regular Christmas shows in Franklin. This special two-set "Zoo" event is now complete and a high profile return to the Bridgestone Arena stage as part of the celebration honoring Michael W. Smith's 35 years in the biz is on the calendar for April 30, 2019.

And for a band perceived to have been mortally wounded by its singer's tweets and corresponding negativity from the Christian press they are not as disconnected from one another as you might think. When it was revealed that the "Zoo" party was to be held on Bransford Avenue it became clear that the group's spacious warehouse, rehearsal room and recording studio shares a wall with guitarist Stephen Mason's barber shop shingle known as The Handsomizer.

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
Jars Of Clay - Charlie Lowell.

It would make sense that plans are being made within this space that fans are yet to be made privy to. Clue #1 is the extent that the guys went to re-issue their lauded Zoo on bright blue vinyl along with a few other fan favorites printed up for the occasion. Upon exiting you could see an impressive collection of industry awards adorning the cold cement walls. Surely the Jars have yet to have their fill of accolades. JOC aficionados can take heart that if the one-time college chums ever want to start making music again they have the space to get er done.

From recent activity it seems Jars Of Clay may have found a home as a grass roots band. Free from the expectation that goes along with the religious label they could be poised to launch a comeback straight outta Nashville. From our vantage point it appears that the talented and acclaimed quartet still enjoy each other's company and the challenge of making music together. Perhaps they just didn't want to be so caged in and confined in the process.

Jars Of Clay Leave Circus; Return to Zoo
"IF I Left the Zoo" - 20th Anniversary reissue on beautiful blue vinyl.

Related Links: For more information on JARS OF CLAY and the other organizations mentioned please visit the following links -- Jars Of Clay | Jars Of Clay - Christmas 2018 | Rock Star Haircut | InstaGram Photo #1 | InstaGram Photo #2


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