It’s not easy to outdo Kirk Franklin.
A major presence in gospel music since the mid 1990s, Franklin is known for his intensity on stage. He doesn’t sing a lot, but as a bandleader in the old-school Cab Calloway mode he does pretty much everything else: dancing, playing piano, acting out his lyrics like the extreme-sports version of a sign-language interpreter.
Franklin exercised all those moves (and quite a few more) within the first several moments of his concert Thursday evening at the Gibson Amphitheatre, where he welcomed an enthusiastic crowd by declaring, “My goal tonight is for you to leave stinky.”
But he wasn’t alone in his quest to cultivate what he called “a spiritual funk.” This was the second date of the King’s Men tour, a month-long U.S. trek teaming Franklin with three slightly lower-wattage gospel stars: Israel Houghton, Donnie McClurkin and Marvin Sapp. And in spite of Franklin’s frontman charisma, it was Sapp who provided the show’s deepest thrills.
The fireworks went off late in the three-hour program, which interweaved solo performances by each of the four singers with various duets and trios and, at the end, an exuberant all-hands jam.
Franklin had promised in his opening homily that the King’s Men wasn’t an “And up next ...” proposition, and indeed the concert benefited from the continuous churn of styles: Where Franklin takes inspiration from hip-hop, McClurkin and Sapp reach back to the pre-rap textures of ’70s-era soul; Houghton, a guitarist as well as a singer, touches on U2 and Carlos Santana. (A nimble 17-piece band backed everything Thursday with expert facility.)
Sapp’s portion of the show began with a video in which he spoke clearly and unwaveringly about his wife MaLinda’s death from colon cancer in 2010. Next, a series of family photographs flickered across the screen, some with MaLinda, others depicting a single father with his three children.
The latter, of course, were almost unbearable to behold — except for Sapp himself, who began singing “My Testimony” with a steadiness that belied the song’s words about personal calamity and nearly losing one’s mind.
Seated on a stool, he was recounting “loss at a major cost,” as the lyrics put it, but instead of sinking into that desperation he was drawing power from the music, growing stronger as he moved through it.
Soon “My Testimony” segued into “The Best in Me,” and as Sapp stood, planting his hands on his hips, his singing escalating to the vocal equivalent of Franklin’s bodily gymnastics; at one point he borrowed a riff from Luther Vandross’ virtuosic take on “A House Is Not a Home,” then left behind melody for a kind of growly, high-pitched shriek. It was an astonishing six or seven minutes.
Sapp re-accessed some of that spirit later in the concert, during a full-group version of his 2008 crossover hit, “Never Would Have Made It.” Or it was almost a full-group version, anyway: Houghton played electric guitar while McClurkin embroidered Sapp’s lead line with vocal runs. Franklin, though, stood off to Sapp’s righthand side, as still as a tree, his eyes narrowed with respectful incredulity.
He looked like he was studying.
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