Gospel's First Lady Spreads Warmth, the Word

At her concert Friday at the First African Methodist Episcopalian Church, Shirley Caesar seemed a bit disheartened at the number of empty seats. She even admitted that she'd been tempted to cancel when informed that the church would be only about a third full.

But Caesar, long regarded as the first lady of gospel, was a spirited trouper as she preached and sang to a warm, enthusiastic crowd of about 300.

Caesar, after all, is a woman who has played gigs at the White House and performed before thousands at the Kennedy Center in Washington. This is no striving-for-recognition novice. With nine Grammy Awards listed on her resume, the 59-year-old Caesar was thrilling gospel fans long before Kirk Franklin--the genre's current hot ticket--was even born.

Proving that there's no real generation gap in gospel, there were plenty of young fans at FAME on Friday. They looked like the kind of teens and young adults you'd imagine would feel more attracted to the urban beat and bravado of Franklin than to the homespun, folksy renderings of Caesar.

To her credit, Caesar brings a traditional, storytelling approach to Christian music that is engaging and tough to resist. Physically small in stature, she nevertheless possesses a mighty stage presence and demeanor.

She waded into the audience several times during the evening, appearing to thrive on the interaction and closeness of her listeners as much as they enjoyed getting an embrace or uplifting word from her. Caesar, who also serves as pastor at a church in North Carolina, is not a hands-off performer. She's a star who is too down-to-earth to act like one around her fans.

It would have been great to hear her light into Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," a fire-and-brimstone number that has recently become a part of her repertoire. Where Dylan's version has a steely power, Caesar imbues it with even more passion and conviction.

Although she mentioned the song on Friday, Caesar didn't perform it. Mainly, she relied on material such as "You're Next in Line for a Miracle," which delivers the type of upbeat, caring and encouraging message that probably draws most gospel fans to the genre in the first place.

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