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POP MUSIC REVIEW : ‘Gospel Extravaganza’ Wasn’t Very Strong on Spirit

While something of a mixed blessing, Saturday’s “Feel the Spirit Gospel Extravaganza” at the Celebrity Theatre testified to the variety of avenues modern gospel music is taking. While updates of traditional black church music were offered by the Friendship Inspirational Voices and the Rev. Daryl Coley, singers Jon Gibson and Crystal Lewis presented music that drew more from secular pop-R&B; crossover styles, and J.C. and the Boys even presented a set of Christian rap music.

If gospel music is now borrowing its styles from the pop charts, it’s only fair, because the vocal styles that fueled R&B; and soul music (and, in turn, their rock imitators) for decades were drawn from black church music. Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, James Brown, Marvin Gaye--nearly without exception, the great R&B; and soul singers of the 1950s and ‘60s began in church and owed the raw, charged emotion of their styles to that experience.

That undiluted style still runs strong in places. Anyone who has been in a gospel tent in the South--where the music can fly like wild electricity and singers and musicians can become caught up in it far beyond their control--would have found Saturday’s show pallid by comparison.

Still, the Anaheim show offered other virtues. There was some fine ensemble singing from the 28-member Friendship Inspirational Voices from Yorba Linda’s Friendship Baptist Church, though the choir scarcely had time to warm up in the two songs alloted. The Voices’ director, Beverly Williams, and her husband, Duane, followed with a stronger set that mixed the dynamics and chorused responses of traditional gospel on a churchified “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and three other tunes.

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Marring both performances somewhat was the backing bands’ use of an array of squirrelly synthesizers, in place of the mainstay Hammond B3 organ. If there’s a heaven and hell for musical instruments, there was strong indication of which destination has space reserved for synths.

J.C. and the Boys, led by break-dance personality David Guzman (no breaking here, though), offered a capable, if little more than that, rap version of testifying.

Singer Jon Gibson’s use of backing tapes in place of a band made his set less immediate than it might have been, but he still proved an engaging performer. With a voice that at times sounds remarkably like Stevie Wonder’s--and passably like Michael Jackson’s at others--Gibson has found success on both the gospel and secular charts; his set reflected that mix.

His strongest moments were the very Wonder-ish “Friend in You,” an anti-suicide song, and a medley of Marvin Gaye’s more spiritually minded songs, where instead of overlush backing tapes, he simply accompanied his voice with bongos. He was least compelling on the treacly pop of “Lost Inside You,” a duet with Crystal Lewis.

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Despite her strong voice, Lewis’ two-song set was similarly mired in weak, pop-derived material.

Gibson’s and Lewis’ sets further suffered from the same malady that infects much of the rock music that aims to uplift in some manner: The artists evidently deem it sufficient to sing about inspiration, of whatever form, instead of delivering a performance that exemplifies inspiration by pushing at the limits of the artists’ talent.

Neither singer worked up too much of a sweat over the music, though singing to a theater that was less than one-quarter full could be an understandable damper.

The closest the evening came to that kind of inspiration was in the closing set by Daryl Coley. The Oakland-based pastor isn’t possessed of one of the more outstanding voices on the gospel circuit, but his tremendous group and inventive arrangements more than made up for that. Coley was backed by five singers and a hot, six-piece band influenced by fusion-funk, and his songs were full of rich, complex harmonies and percolating rhythms.

Limited voice or no, Coley’s singing and preaching conveyed a joy that had the audience on its feet and singing to close the lengthy program.


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