“I wonder if I could sing a bit of my signature song to you,” said Jennifer Holliday at the McDonald’s Gospelfest concert at Prudential Hall in Newark, May 7. She was referring to “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which she first sang on Broadway, in “Dreamgirls,” in 1981. It’s a love song, not a gospel song. But it’s also, as she said, a “testimony of survival,” and so it fit right in at this show, which was full of anthems of faith and perseverance.
The concert took place at the Prudential Center in Newark on the Saturday of Mother’s Day Weekend, and though three of the gospel world’s leading male performers (Tye Tribbett, Hezekiah Walker and Donnie McClurkin) performed the last three sets, it was, appropriately enough, the women on the bill — Holliday, Tamela Mann, Yolanda Adams, Shirley Caesar, Cissy Houston and Karen Clark Sheard — who generally made the biggest impressions. Very possibly, no other gospel show in the country, this year, will gather so much talent under one roof.
Caesar, 77, and Houston, 82, left no doubt their stately voices are still powerful instruments, and Caesar had the perfect holiday-themed song: “I Remember Mama,” with lines like “I remember mama in a happy way/She packed our lunch in an old greasy bag/It might’ve seemed empty/But it was more than others had.”
Adams accepted commiserations from Gospelfest producer-director A. Curtis Farrow about the recent cancellation of her nationally syndicated gospel radio show; and a medal of honor from the city of Newark, presented to her by one of her biggest fans, council president Mildred C. Crump.
Mann’s set included one of the show’s most musically adventurous songs, her new single “One Way,” which has a rock beat and screaming electric guitars. “The message is the same, but the beat is different,” she said.
It was a day of devout performances and sincere messages, but host Greg Kelly (of television’s “Good Day New York”), who is clearly a huge fan of gospel music, added a surreal touch by cruising around the stage on a Hoverboard.
The show lasted more than seven hours, with no intermission or long breaks between set changes. In the late afternoon, aspiring artists — soloists, choirs, praise dancers, gospel comedians and more — competed in various categories. (More than 20,000 people auditioned to be part of the competition, Farrow said.) In the final afternoon segment, four pre-teens and one octogenarian took the stage together, and blew everyone away with their talent.
In its 33 years, McDonald’s Gospelfest has awarded millions of dollars to its competition winners. One former contestant — Hezekiah Walker — turned into a headliner himself.
The show was taped for television broadcast this summer, on a date to be determined.