A blind man walked through a crowded room. Though he couldn’t see where he was going, he kept shouting for joy, and bunny-hopping as high as his 80-something-year-old legs could lift him. That man was Jimmy Carter, the leader of the celebrated Blind Boys of Alabama, the room was the Prudential Center in Newark, and the occasion was the 32nd annual McDonald’s Gospelfest, a celebration of holy excess in devotional music. As the rest of his quartet draped the room in reverent harmonies, Carter, guided by his sidemen, shook the hands of exultant concertgoers on the floor of the arena — many of whom had been standing, shouting and singing along to gospel music for hours.
They’d continue for hours more. Nobody comes to Gospelfest for a quick thrill. The music, and the sustained praise, begins in the mid-afternoon and continues with intermittent breaks until midnight. It is a nine-hour megachurch service with the rote elements of worship stripped away. What is left is pure exuberance – a long held note in honor of the Almighty. In its maximalism, and its optimism, it is deeply American. Gospelfest is a thrill, an endurance test, an exhibition of astonishing musical skill, a reunion (everybody in the crowd seems to know each other, and even when they don’t, after all the exhortations from stage to “hug a neighbor,” they surely do by the end of the night), and a reminder that church music is the bedrock of modern pop performance. Gospelfest regulars know something that many pop listeners have forgotten: the moves that thrill millions were incubated in the pulpit, under the Lord’s own tutelage.
Last year’s event, subtitled “Women Who Worship,” attracted a roster of legendary female voices: Shirley Caesar, Dorothy Norwood, CeCe Winans, Melba Moore and others, many of whom sang to pre-recorded backing tracks. This year, producer A. Curtis Farrow took the opposite approach, placing the emphasis on gospel fundamentals rather than star power. There were some big names on the bill, including Gospelfest regular Vickie Winans and Newark’s own Cissy Houston, who led the New Hope Baptist Church Choir through “Even Me.” Most of the evening, however, belonged to massive choirs — choirs big enough to cause a fire hazard in a community theater. Donald Malloy put his gigantic Greater Central Jersey Community Choir on a riser at the rear of the performance area and careened through a rambunctious “Prayer Will Fix It”; Bishop Hezekiah Walker laced his Love Fellowship Choir across the front of the stage, where, three rows thick, they launched into a delighted renditions of “Souled Out” and “Grateful.” If joy could take on a visual manifestation, this is what it would look like.
Fifty-voice choirs mean an opportunity for some spectacular synchronized dress, too. The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral Mass Choir — which belongs to the Queens church of the Rev. Floyd Flake (a former congressman), who addressed the Saturday night congregation — presented themselves in a carnival of bright solid colors. The effect was akin to a burst of confetti, especially when the band ratcheted up the tempo and the singers began to gyrate. The Mississippi Mass Choir arrived in matching red, white and blue vestments that swung like pennants in the wind when the singers got excited. And yes, they started out excited — excited as a bunch of ping-pong balls in a lottery hopper — and maintained that intensity until their stage time ran out.
Chicago’s Thompson Community Reunion Choir, the revelation of the evening, dressed its sopranos and altos in brilliant turquoise. The men’s dress was more understated, but their singing was anything but. The women provided the sweetness to “Lord, I’m Available to You”; the boys followed with the bass punch. A skillful minister of music can tease all manner of terrific arrangements out of a big choir, and the voices of the Thompsons were stacked, threaded, reinforced and interwoven to dazzling effect. The sound of a big church choir in full roar can’t be approximated or synthesized: In order to achieve the sort of sonic wattage that the Thompson Community Choir or the Mississippi Mass Choir were able to bring to the Prudential Center on Saturday, you’ve got to gather a large group of talented and enthusiastic vocalists in a room and point a microphone at them.
Even the soloists at Gospelfest made good use of the thunder of church choirs. Vickie Winans turned 100 voices loose on her exultant “Long As I Got King Jesus,” a highlight of the night. The exception was Newark R&B singer Faith Evans, who had the massive McDonald’s Gospel Choir at her disposal, but biffed the opportunity for grandeur by performing her own pop material instead.
The mid-afternoon talent competition segment of the evening featured rappers, poets and comedians, but it was singing groups like South Korea’s terrific Heritage Mass Choir that best demonstrated the inclusive character of church music. Heritage brought down the house with a rendition of Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise”; immediately afterward, Farrow asked the crowd whether it was not amazing to see God move all over the world. Nobody said no.
Vocal harmonies are an essential component of another traditional style featured at this year’s Gospelfest: the quartet. Instead of a choir, four singers raise their voices together while another strums a guitar or hammers away on a piano, and whatever is lost in sheer force is made up for in flexibility. The Blind Boys of Alabama, a combo that has been at it — with shifting personnel — for nearly 60 years, is the style’s best-known export, and Carter reminded the crowd that some of the songs they were singing had been featured in movies and television shows. Their set featured several numbers that ought to be recognizable to anybody with even a passing interest in American music, including “People Get Ready” and a minor-key take on “Amazing Grace.” All of this was beautifully rendered, but unlike the rest of the evening, it felt tailored to the sensibilities of the secular listener.
The Mighty Clouds of Joy had no such qualms. In song, they offered to shake the hands of anybody born again, and then they stepped to the lip of the stage and did just that, pressing flesh with ticketholders who’d queued in the aisles to show their appreciation and touch their heroes.
Choirs are so sonically impressive that they occasionally distract from the instrumentalists who provide the helium for their flights of fancy. That’s not so for quartet performances — the guitarists and pianists get right up front and tangle with the singers, and they play with the same pounding enthusiasm that characterizes all other aspects of gospel performance. Of all the terrific musicians who graced the stage on Saturday, the best of all might have been Twinkie Clark of the Clark Sisters, a pianist of uncommon imagination and dexterity. Smooth-voiced Doc McKenzie let the house band run wild behind him (particularly the bassist) and he was rewarded for his faith with a kinetic take on the otherwise genteel “Man in the Middle.”
Guiding choirs on and offstage without causing an avalanche of singers is a challenge, especially when some of the participants are well past 50 years old. Farrow did his best to keep the night on schedule, and to his credit, there wasn’t much downtime between acts. Technical difficulties were smoothed over by the night’s hosts: goofy Greg Kelly of Good Day New York, who came off as an endearing but overeager gospel mascot, and Liz Black of WBLS, who is so good at smoothing out awkward moments that she should consider working for the State Department.
Farrow was, as always, a genial host and a true believer. Once again, he called Newark the First City of Gospel, which is debatable, but also entirely defensible (he’ll get no argument from me). He might catch a little grief for preaching to the converted this time around — there were precious few crossover acts on the bill and none of the solo showstoppers and musical soliloquies from name artists that made Gospelfest 2014 such a memorable concert. But he probably realized there wasn’t anywhere further to go in that direction, and that a return to the traditional verities is usually welcomed by the congregation. Spectacular solo vocal renditions — all of which are indebted to the flamboyance of gospel — are common coin on hit radio and competition shows these days. To put yourself in the way of an expert choir, you’ve got to go to Gospelfest. Or, you know, Sunday service.