Best of the blessed
Don't miss a chance to see the Gospel Music Fest's most praise-worthy performers
Some of the best gospel acts from around the country will show off some mighty sets of pipes at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, taking place Friday 3 to Sunday 5 at Millennium Park. It's the only city-sponsored music fest that will be staged this summer at the park, and the Pritzker Pavilion (where all of the following acts take place, unless otherwise noted) promises to raise the singers' voices, if not to heaven, then at least halfway there. On the nearby Chase Promenade, the fest will also feature concerts at the Day Stage (south end) and Youth Gospel Stage (north end), and an art fair. Here are a few of this year's praise-worthy performances.
Dorinda Clark-Cole, Friday 3 at 8pm. Clark-Cole used to be a member of the Clark Sisters, who had a dance-club hit in 1983 with "You Brought the Sunshine," a surprise gospel-crossover hit. Three years ago, she released her self-titled solo debut, which blends straight-ahead gospel with some contemporary R&B and jazz. She even gets lowdown and bluesy on "I'm Coming Out." Clark-Cole hasn't made another album since, but she remains highly visible on the concert circuit.
Joshua's Troop, Saturday 4 at 1pm (on the Day Stage, Chase Promenade). Although its self-titled debut album doesn't seem to feature more than a handful of voices on any one song, the youth chorus Joshua's Troop is 150 voices strong. Headed by the Rev. Charles Jenkins, the Chicago group was formed at Missionary Fellowship Baptist Church. Established gospel artists like Percy Gray and Jeray Gray Sr. make cameo appearances on the album, but the Troop has clearly staked out its own identity early in the game. When one member solos, the rest of the choir remains front and center as well, infusing the music with genuine call-and-response vocals and a touch of blues and funk.
Doc McKenzie and the Hi-Lites, Saturday 4 at 5pm. Milford "Doc" McKenzie, based out of South Carolina, has traveled the gospel highway for 38 years, but didn't get his just due until 1982's "What a Wonder the Lord Has Done," which features a riveting monologue about a three-year-old girl who accidentally falls from a third-floor window. He's remained in the gospel spotlight since with a doggedly traditional sound. While his recordings have given in to the usual signs of progress (like synths), they're never embarrassing years down the line—partly because of solid songwriting, but mostly because the gimmicky effects never overpower the music.
Solomon Burke, Saturday 4 at 7:30pm. Burke was born into the ministry in 1936 in Philadelphia, where, legend has it, he was ordained from birth. By age seven, he had a career as a broadcast evangelist with his radio show Solomon's Temple. As a teenager, he branched out into secular music in 1954 and became one of the first performers whose music could be called soul. In reality, it was simply R&B with gospel embellishments. While you could lead Burke out of the church, you couldn't get the church out of Burke, a predilection he amply demonstrated with hits like "Cry to Me" (1962) and "Got to Get You Off My Mind" (1965). This special all-gospel show, in which Burke will be backed by the Destiny Worship Center Choir, marks his return to a style of music he neverreally could leave behind.
Rance Allen Group, Saturday 4 at 8:30pm. Pick up the 1973 film Wattstax, recently reissued on DVD, and fast-forward to the Rance Allen Group. Rance and the guys (in their mod attire) are playing for 90,000 fans at the 1972 Watts Summer Festival—and they're killing. While the other two members lay down a solid foundation on bass and drums, Rance plays guitar and stomps on his fuzz box while wailing about social injustice. The group members were the crossover gospel/soul kings at that moment, and the movie caught a rawer side that you didn't hear on their (admittedly great) studio records. Now, three decades later, not only is Rance still performing, but he's got the same trio lineup. Of course, when we saw the group a few years back, we were disappointed that it concentrated on singing while other musicians carried the instrumental load, but it still put on an energetic show while spreading the word. Let's hope the group will still climax the performance with its version of the "Pentecostal Wiggle."
Mary Mary, Sunday 5 at 7:45pm. Mary Mary, performing as part of the "Power in Praise Experience" tour with other contemporary gospel acts, has figured out that the quickest way to get its message to the masses is to dress it up in contemporary clothes. The West Coast—based singing-songwriting duo's 2002 album, appropriately titled Incredible, is one of the best neo-soul discs ever released. If Destiny's Child got rid of its bourgie trappings and hired Raphael Saadiq to produce its records, it might sound like Mary Mary. But for all the musical experimentation that got Mary Mary on Soul Train, the lyrics are still on the inspirational side—not simple-minded or preachy, but definitely grounded in reality.