"Having that musical atmosphere in and around everything the band is doing...it's just icing on the cake," said the artist from his home near Nashville, Tenn.
"Those musicians are all such great players – and way more professional than we've ever been," he laughed.
The award-winning, inspirational pop band joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for a Nov. 29 concert at Resurrection Life Church in Grandville. Also featured is the Res Life Church Choir. The band has its own Christmas concert the following night in Kalamazoo (details below).
After the first portion of the evening during which MercyMe performs several of its Christian radio hits (including the seminal "I Can Only Imagine"), the band is joined by the symphony for holiday music drawn largely from last year's album, "Mercy Me, It's Christmas."
"One of the fun things about Christmas concerts is going back and re-learning all those songs you've deleted from your brain's hard drive," said Graul. "It's a nice season getting ready for Christmas once again."
SONGS OLD AND NEW
On its recent Christmas album the band included traditional tunes such as "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" But also on the list are originals "Christmastime Again" and "Hold On Christmas" which they featured at holiday concerts last year.
MercyMe's earlier holiday album ("The Christmas Sessions" released in 2005) contains more sacred carols, some of which will also get the symphonic treatment under the baton of GR Symphony associate conductor John Varineau.
"It's a little bit of work to make sure we get the (sound) mix right," Graul noted of the joint performances. "But when we get our monitors right and can hear the symphony so near and clear, it's like another world."
The guitarist observed that Christmas audiences are a bit different than concert audiences at other times of the year. "People see it as having a little different atmosphere, they may be a bit more dressed up for more of a 'sit down and enjoy the moment' show. If I was going to see it, I would probably do the same thing."
THE MERCY ROAD
Graul – at age 55 the senior member of the band – signed on with MercyMe in 2003, just a couple of years after it shot to prominence with "I Can Only Imagine." Written by lead singer Bart Millard after the passing of his father, the ballad topped both mainstream and Christian music charts and recently achieved a record of 2 million digital downloads.
MercyMe's string of inspirational hits is a long one, including the devotional ballad "Word of God Speak," which Billboard tabbed as the No. 1 Christian Song of the Decade (2000-2009). The players scored on pop radio with songs such as "Here With Me" and "So Long Self." Their appearances include several network TV spots, Radio City Music Hall, and Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
Graul's own favorite MercyMe song is "Finally Home," a serious ballad which came together quite quickly during an emotion-filled studio session. "It was one of those moments where the Holy Spirit really showed up," he said. "You only get a handful of those through the years where things come together like that," he said.
AND THE ROAD CONTINUES
The band has toured regularly in West Michigan through the years with performances at Van Andel Arena and various area church platforms. They even did a 2006 concert at Fifth Third Ball Park on a bill with TobyMac.
Next up is completing work on a new album, likely to emerge next spring. But MercyMe is not yet ready to perform any of the new material. "We don't even know how to play the stuff live yet," he chuckled.
*MercyMe with the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Res Life Choir
7:30 p.m. Tues. Nov. 29
Resurrection Life Church, 5100 Ivanrest Ave. SW
Tickets $30 to $60, available via ticketmaster.com or the symphony office 616-454-9451 ext. 4.
7:30 p.m. Wed. Nov. 30 at Miller Auditorium, 1903 W. Michigan Ave, Kalamazoo.
Tickets $25 to $40, group rates may be available, purchase online or at the Miller box office at 269-387-2300. Also www.itickets.com, 800-965-9324.
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