Great gospel music gets people to cast off the weight of their troubles, the burden of their sins, the shackles of the daily grind and rise to their feet with a joyous shout of "Amen!"
But can it bring people stuffed with biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, an overstuffed omelet, fried potatoes and a rich chocolate brownie (or three) to their feet?
That's the challenge for the performers at the gospel brunches held Sundays at the House of Blues (both the Sunset Strip locale and the new Downtown Disney facility in Anaheim) and at B.B. King's Blues Club at Universal City's CityWalk--and at a Jewish-themed klezmer brunch started recently at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood.
Think of it as a way to make up for all those times you sat in church, dying of hunger and not able to even pop a LifeSaver into your mouth without drawing disapproving stares. At these places, it's all you can eat and all you can praise--and even atheists can feel the spirit if the music's rocking.
The standard-setter for the format just may be the gospel tent at New Orleans' legendary Jazz and Heritage Festival each spring. For all seven days of the annual fest, thousands of fans--filled with soft-shell crab po' boys, alligator sauce piquant and chocolate cream snowballs--pack the tent to hear everything from local church choirs to Aaron Neville's yearly appearance while a middle-aged hippie who calls himself Wing of Life dances in the aisles and a formidable woman (usually referred to as "the tambourine lady") shakes her instrument at the side of the stage. Much of the day, people of all races and creeds are on their feet with their hands in the air.
OK, it's unfair to compare the local gospel brunches to that. But at their best they at least approximate the feeling of the New Orleans scene (minus the humidity).
While dozens of restaurants and clubs in the region host Sunday brunches with musical accompaniment, the gospel brunches (and their klezmer cousin) stand out as real events in which the show is perhaps more of the attraction than the meal. We sampled the four around the area to see how they measured up, ranking them on the hallelujah scale, four hallelujahs being the top possible rating.
The House of Blues likes to cover all bases, spiritually speaking. The faux-rustic prosceniums of the stages at all of the chain's clubs are crowned with symbols from the major religions, flanking photos of guru Sri Baba. But on a recent Sunday at the West Hollywood club, it all faded in the blinding light of the canary-yellow gown with matching fur cuffs and sequined turban worn by gospel brunch hostess Sylvia St. James. Nothing could outshine the spirit of the day, a light she kindled by leading off the musical portion of the event with a rousing "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus," while House of Blues waiters and other personnel got into the act around the club, clapping along and singing to set the tone for the audience, which didn't take long to get to its collective feet.
St. James then stepped aside to make way for the day's act, the Sons of Christ, who never let the spirit sag. The group mixed the raw funk energy of James Brown via Stevie Wonder and the classic gospel vocal interplay of the Blind Boys of Alabama for the kind of roughhewn approach that's gotten lost in the modern R&B; variations. The crowd needed little, if any, prompting to get up--with birthday and anniversary celebrators invited on stage at set's end. Give it three robust hallelujahs and a hearty amen.
The room at the Anaheim House of Blues is a bit smaller, and emcee Harold Hines--in a conservative charcoal suit--is not the visual beacon of his West Hollywood counterpart. But the format here is the same, with Hines leading the opening "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" and the staff clapping and dancing to lead the audience.
The group Gentlemen for Christ favored a slicker contemporary R&B; sound there than what is heard in West Hollywood, but there was compensation in the tireless enthusiasm of lead singer Teddy Hawkins, who made his way into the audience and even to the balcony, turning the microphone over to audience members and a couple of vocally gifted House of Blues staff members. Still, it must be noted that the only times the audience got to its feet this day were when Hawkins urged it, so the spirit wasn't connecting quite as earnestly as you might like. We'll give it three hallelujahs.
The Anointed Seven was a regular in the early days of B.B. King's gospel brunch but broke up. Now reunited, the coed ensemble proved in a testifying mood on the recent Sunday when it made its first return to the club. Several of the seven singers told of overcoming difficulties in their lives, setting the tone for exuberant gospel with echoes of classic Memphis soul, drawing on both standards ("Wade in the Water") and more current fare ("I Believe I Can Fly"), with no sense that any of this was being watered down for the secular setting. "You don't have to go to church to find Jesus," declared one of the female singers. "You can find him anywhere." Three strong hallelujahs.
Klezmer Music Has Following Among Young
You wouldn't expect to find Jesus at a klezmer brunch, but what about shamrocks? Left over from a St. Patrick's Day celebration, the green clovers incongruously adorned the stage curtain at the Knitting Factory when the klezmer brunch made its debut in March. They were only slightly more out of place than the inaugural performer, folk rocker Peter Himmelman, whose personal approach to songs is infused with his Orthodox Jewish faith but includes no trace of klezmer music--the 20th century fusion that happened when itinerant eastern European Jewish musicians (klezmorim) landed in New York and discovered jazz, a form that's had a rich revival in recent years.
Nothing against Himmelman--he gave a terrific performance, mixing songs of yearning and passion with between-song self-deprecations (including about his lack of klezmer content), earning the audience's favor by improvising songs for the occasion. A spontaneous, witty ode to Abraham and Lily Weiss, Hungarian-born Holocaust survivors who were marking their 55th anniversary that day, was the highlight. But even patrons who enjoyed his set complained to management that, as one woman put it, "we paid to hear klezmer music."
After that rocky start, though, the Knitting Factory (winkingly re-dubbed the House of Jews for the Sunday series) got on track with a rotation of local klezmer acts, including Hollywood Klezmer, Orange County Klezmer and the wonderfully named Rabbinical School Dropouts.
On a recent Sunday, it was a Long Beach community ensemble called Schtetl Menschen. While not as adventurous or lively as such leaders of the klezmer resurgence as New York's Klezmatics or the funky New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, the Menschen--nine instrumentalists plus singer Harriet Bennish and dancer Anita Blumenfeld--evoked the world of early 20th century Jewish immigrants with Old World melodies in Dixieland-derived arrangements, a clarinet alternately weeping and laughing, the essential expressions of klezmer.
But there's still that on-your-feet factor to consider, and while two people stood for Himmelman (the Weisses on their anniversary waltz), only one audience member left her seat to join Blumenfeld and Bennish for a finale hora. So there's still plenty of room for improvement. Two hallelujahs and a lighthearted oy vey!
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The Brunch Bunch
* House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-5100, and 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, (714) 778-BLUE.
Sunday brunch seatings, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tickets $30 to $33, depending on your view of the stage; children 3 to 12, $17; under 3, free but must have reservations. $2.50 charge for will-call tickets by telephone. Valet parking, $5.
* B.B. King's Blues Club, Universal CityWalk, second floor.
Sunday brunch seatings, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tickets, $24.95; seniors, $19.95; children, $9.95. (818) 622-5464. Garage parking, $7.
* The Knitting Factory, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.
Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; band plays 12 to 1 p.m. and 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Tickets, $10 for music only; $15, for music and brunch; children, half price. (323) 463-0204.