A church it is not, but over the past 12 months, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark has hosted a run of astoundingly good gospel performances. Last October, Kirk Franklin presented a fierce, funny, high-energy set of devotional music that, when the star sat at the piano, felt reassuringly traditional. That show was followed by a gospel revue curated by Bishop Hezekiah Walker that featured a mid-evening appearance by Camden’s Tye Tribbett, a musical polymath whose band finds the middle ground between Weather Report and the Black Eyed Peas. Franklin and Walker are both members of the first generation of gospel artists who had to reconcile church music with the ascendance of hip-hop — and so are Fred Hammond and Donnie McClurkin, who will co-headline at NJPAC on Friday night. Both singers are on the far side of 50, and both are modernizers who have nevertheless remained faithful to inspirational music.
The Detroit-born Hammond made his name in Commissioned, a church music star factory that also incubated the careers of Mitchell Jones and Marvin Sapp. At its early-’90s height, Commissioned was a gospel answer to New Edition and Boyz II Men: a harmony outfit heavy with hooks and joyful exclamations and an eye on the dancefloor. On his own, Hammond is not always as rambunctious. But even on conventional gospel ballads like “All Things Are Working,” R&B cadences and inflections are always present in his voice. McClurkin, who grew up in Amityville, is a regular attraction at the annual Gospelfest celebration at the Prudential Center in Newark; he, too, sings a contemporary version of gospel that, ever so tentatively, shakes hands with the mainstream. “We Are Victorious,” a 2012 crossover hit that featured Tribbett’s trademark whoop, is a straightforward pop-soul number dressed up crisply for church. WBLS deejay Liz Black will reprise her role as MC — if there’s a gospel show happening in the area, there’s a very good chance she’ll be pumping up the crowd.
And should you be pumped, and elevated, and alive with charitable feelings after seeing Friday night’s show, there’s an opportunity to do a good deed — and rock at the same time — on Sunday afternoon. Montclair songwriter and arts organizer Alan Smith has put together a fundraiser for his sister, an artist suffering from breast cancer, at Tierney’s Tavern. Smith, the frontman of the Porchistas, is suggesting a $25 donation for attending the 2 p.m. party, but showgoers can pay what they want to, and larger contributions will be gratefully accepted. The main attraction at the show is Ocean County folk-rock band Thomas Wesley Stern, which might be the only group in New Jersey that sounds better sans amplification. The band’s 2013 self-titled album confronted storms — both metaphorical and actual — with bravery, and electric instruments, too. At Tierney’s, they’ll be playing unplugged, which means they’ll probably be singing stripped-down rockers, old folk songs and a few originals that sound like they could have been written in the Pine Barrens in 1910. Smith is also talking about a “feast for the ages,” which sounds hyperbolic until you remember that he usually delivers what he promises.
Billy Hector is another Jersey musician famous for his delivery — he’s been a reliable source of guitar heroics for decades. At a Hector show, you know exactly what you’re going to get: electric blues, handsome mid-tempo rock redolent of the Shore, and superior soloing. If the Garden State had a guitarist laureate, he’d have to merit serious consideration for the office. On Friday night, Hector brings his band to a local club that suits his interest in the sound and feel of classic vinyl: the Record Collector in Bordentown.
The Stanhope House was built for the blues, but since its 2010 reopening, the Sussex County roadhouse has quietly gained a reputation for hip-hop shows. On Saturday, Stanhope turns its tin-ceilinged stage over to one of the most boisterous acts in the history of the style. Onyx burst out of Queens in the early ’90s with a series of intense singles that were at that time unrivaled in their sonic and lyrical aggressiveness. “Slam,” “Throw Ya Gunz” and “Shiftee” were so angry, depraved and nihilistic that the group satirized itself; to fans of hardcore rap, Onyx sounded like a limit. Of course, that limit has been transgressed time and again since Bacdafucup, the group’s 1993 debut, and in retrospect, it’s easier to appreciate the clever rhymes and the concrete-and-steel architecture of Jam Master Jay’s production. As many suspected, the members of Onyx were actors rather than felons with a death wish; emcee Sticky Fingas has gone on to have a career in mainstream filmed entertainment. But he and partner Fredro Starr have never put Onyx on the shelf, and their records are as bonkers as ever. Wakedafucup, released in March, features a cameo from New York City mixtape veteran Papoose and the rambunctious Harlem rapper A$AP Ferg.