Praise the Lord and Pass the Biscuits

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The club scene has gotten religion.

Gospel brunches--that fiery, soul-lifting combination of African American Baptist singing and high-cholesterol Southern food--have taken hold.

For more than a year on the first Sunday of every month, the Lord has been praised and the calories damned at the Derby on Los Feliz Boulevard. Now the newly opened House of Blues, on Sunset, is hosting its own spiritual brunch each Sunday.

"Some folks take it as a form of entertainment," says Ollie Collins Jr., a missionary Baptist who recently arranged for the music at the House of Blues. Collins' gospel-country roots stretch back to Tupelo, Miss., where his brother, Andrew, had "interchange on the guitar" with a 9-year-old Elvis Presley at the Happy Feed Store.

"For others, this will change their lives," Collins says with a nod. "One never knows who is planted in an audience. God works in mysterious ways."

On this Sunday, those firmly planted before formidable plates of rich food are a predominantly white, prosperous crowd (BMWs and Range Rovers fill the parking lot) who take to the music as though they'd been singing "hallelujah" all their lives. As one brunch-goer, Annabelle Stevens, says: "There's so few places in L.A. that have oomph."

Most of the 250-strong crowd sit family-style at four 20-foot-long tables covered in white clothes that radiate from the stage. The idea is to duplicate Southern pot luck and tent revivals, where different church congregations would come together, their choirs would sing and parishioners would bring special dishes.

In terms of food, the House of Blues provides the pot luck. Three buffets are set with omelet stations, jambalaya, barbecue chicken and chocolate whiskey cake.

"I'm proud of this," says chef Ken Frank, formerly of La Toque. "This is what this club is about. I really believe this is the best thing we can do for L.A."

Although there are some who say religious music has no place in a club where drinking and dancing go on, singer Andrew Williams says: "You're supposed to spread the Gospel. Gospel is good anywhere, anytime." He performs with the Sweet Singing Cava-Leers, four middle-aged men with a three-man backup group on electric guitar and drums.

While Dustin Hoffman stops by the dressing room to say how much he enjoyed the performance, Williams says the group doesn't change its style at all for the House of Blues crowd. "We sing exactly the way we do in a Baptist church. We don't take anything back."

Lead singer Walter Cook, who has been with the group for 40 years, sits nearby with his shirt off. Sweat pours from his ample body. As he looks for his cigarette lighter, he mentions that the Lord has helped him survive three heart attacks. When he's told the Lord helps those who help themselves, he laughs heartily, but still lights up.

"You look at the people here today," he says. "A lot of them don't go to black Baptist or any other kind of church. They've never seen people rejoice. Some of them aren't sure what they should do. Some think they should get up and dance."

As food is brought to the singers, Collins reflects on the morning with the Cava-Leers. The consensus is that singing gospel at the House of Blues is good for both them and the crowd.

"We don't have to know all what happens, but something good did happen," Collins says. "We know by Scripture it won't return void. It will accomplish what it set out to do."

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Where: The House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Gospel brunches are every Sunday, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

At the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Los Angeles, brunches with three members of the First AME Church choir are held the first Sunday of every month, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Cost: House of Blues tickets are $21 for adults; $12.50 for children. Reservations: (213) 650-0476.

At the Derby, it's $16 for adults, while youngsters can order from a children's menu. Reservations: (213) 663-8979.

Dress: Spiritually casual.

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