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Chicago, IL -- While they were a long way from Grant Park, the stomping grounds for the Chicago Gospel Fest for the past 20 plus years, this year, the Festival was scattered throughout the Chicago Community.
On one stage, Gospel recording artist J. Moss took the crowd in on a more intimate and small stage, but the crowd gathered still appreciated every note and every dance move he put down, along with apair of choreographed singer-dancers, bass, guitar, drums, keyboard and a DJ.
It was loud, it was fierce and it was committed.
No form of American music has confronted artistic change with the resolve of gospel. Churches reeled when Chicago’s Soul Stirrers became the first gospel group to use guitar accompaniment and electric string bass. (As the group transitioned from piano to guitar, leader R.H. Harris told detractors to read the 150th Psalm, which urges praising the Lord with string instruments.) And when Soul Stirrers lead singer Sam Cooke went secular, devout gospel fans warned that bad things could happen.
The City of Chicago took a gamble and moved the 27th Chicago Gospel Music Festival from the touristy Millennium Park to Bronzeville for Saturday and Sunday.
The Saturday session was a success, judging from the people who packed the park to see headliner Fred Hammond, former guitarist for the Winans. The festival ran from noon until about 7:30 p.m. both days, and a city spokeswoman estimated weekend attendance of 25,000. There was no outdoor concert lighting at the park, so the area was cleared by nightfall.
Like a pickle in a burger, J. Moss was the middle part of a McDonald’s Inspiration Celebration Gospel Tour that appeared on the main stage.
Moss gave a shoutout to his edgy opener, Byron Cage, asking the crowd, “Was he off the chain?”
I don’t think they talk like that at McDonald’s headquarters.
The connection between hip-hop and traditional jubilee gospel is not far-fetched.
Jubilee gospel traded harmonies for ad libs. A jubilee quartet consisted of four distinct stars. Jubilee also had a tendency to look inward, while other forms of gospel spoke to the present and the future.
Moss delivered a sterling 90-minute set. His saucy falsetto is reminiscent of R. Kelly and Prince, and it is best served on slow-groove ballads like “Praise on the Inside.” He got the crowd revved up, telling them they could be heard downtown. Isn’t that a metaphor for Bronzeville?
“This has far exceeded what I imagined,” said Michelle Boone, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, before Cage took the stage. “Absolutely we would do it again here. It is wonderful to have the festival where gospel music started. Based on the turnout it seems that the audience is happy.”
Other music festivals — not just neighborhood festivals with tribute rock bands — could come to other neighborhoods.
“We wanted to look at this as a pilot,” Boone said. “Based on how people respond here, and what we heard from people in our community conversation for the cultural plan, people are eager to have more festival type programming in their neighborhoods. This demonstrates if you bring it they will come. It would be great to explore other platforms we could take in the neighborhoods.”
Boone also had the brilliant idea of trolley tours to three historic Bronzeville churches. She said all three tours were at capacity and will be expanded next year.
Hammond put a stylish and appropriately uplifting closing touch to the Saturday session. Flanked by two female singers and two male singers, the mellow multi-Grammy winner easily moved from the soul-tinged ballad “Are You Ready” to the hard-rockin’ “Jesus Be a Fence” that had the crowd on its feet while breaking down barriers on a warm summer night in Chicago.