John Sieger

The Greatness of Gospel Music

A veteran rock musician explains why he helped organize Friday night’s gospel showcase -- and why you shouldn’t miss it.

By - Feb 18th, 2014 04:13 pm
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Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee

Milwaukee Gospel Jubilee

This Friday, February 21st, at 8:00 pm, five great gospel groups, all of them local, will take the stage at The Pabst Theater. The event is called Milwaukee Gospel — Jubilee at The Pabst. All profits will go to Progressive Community Health Centers. It should be a great show.

Think of it — black gospel quartets, surely one of the main fountainheads of modern popular music, not only here in America, but around the world, on a stage that confers about as much respect as you can get in Milwaukee. And it’s for a cause that couldn’t be more important, providing affordable health care to the underserved and uninsured. Sound good? It does to me. Beyond that, the chance that this could happen on a yearly basis is real, but we need to get people out in droves. Here’s why you should come.

Unless you live and work in the area where these groups perform, mostly in churches large and small, you have missed something that is as exciting, beautiful, tender and as powerful as music gets. I’m sorry to say you are living in a kind of poverty. Friday you will have a chance to correct that.

It’s hard to explain to people why I love this music so much, but let me try. Charles McCullum, the Big Daddy of The Masonic Wonders, with a voice and presence that rivals Wilson Pickett‘s, has lost two grandsons to gun violence. I know he probably wouldn’t want to see this in print and might view it as exploitive, but here it is anyway. Julia Love, the dazzling lead singer of the a cappella group The Queens of Harmony, lost her son in the same way in 2000. The anniversary of that sad event will fall on the day of the concert. You might expect something angry or bitter to be the product of these tragedies — who would blame them? Yet Julia and Charles sing songs with their groups that resonate with gratitude and joy. It seems unlikely, but it’s true.

The history of gospel music is one of necessary invention. Slaves, stripped of their possessions, taken to a new land, taught a new language and somehow embracing a new religion, forged something powerful and life affirming. They brought a lot of the old world with them and even though they didn’t have instruments at first, they had voices and could clap their hands. Alchemy, you might call it. You take unbearable pain as raw material and create profound joy.

Hundreds of years in the making and still evolving, gospel music works magic in small churches, transforming the room and the people in it to a spirit zone with unbounded energy. Now imagine it expanded and glorified in that beautiful cathedral we call the Pabst.

I’m most familiar with Charles’ and Julia’s groups. It was my distinct pleasure to be able to play guitar for The Wonders in the ’90s and unless they establish a strong perimeter around the stage next Friday, they will have a hard time keeping me and my amp away. The other groups are equally exciting to see and hear.

The Victory In Praise Youth Choir are in their early teens and and already have the forms and conventions of gospel in their bones. The torch is passed quite naturally in these churches, with avid students as young as two or three in the front pews soaking it up. More than once I have seen little boys holding drumsticks, tracking every move the drummer makes. I have seen young singers, struggling to find that elusive note, encouraged by whole congregations. It’s a beautiful thing

The Sharon Travelers may be the senior members of this review, I’m too polite too ask. They are more small chorus than quartet and had six singers at the rehearsal I attended. I was a couple feet away from featured vocalist Thomas Prescott as he sang by himself at the beginning of one song. It was as close to Pop Staples as I’ll ever get, pure, southern and unfathomable in it’s depth.

The Genesis Singers are a powerhouse group of ladies with tight arrangements. They are joined by Minister Alex Bell, who blurs the line between preaching and singing in a pleasantly confusing way. It makes me realize just how doomed I was to fail the Latin Mass and Gregorian Chant I heard as a young altar boy. I was already hooked on the music that gospel made possible and just biding my time till I got my first guitar.

That music, by the way, was and still is rock and roll. If you caught the Beatle tribute last week and enjoyed it, remind yourself. No gospel — no Beatles. Their big thing coming up as young musicians was the sound of American R & B and rock and roll. The great singers like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cook, Ray Charles, Darlene Love and all the others? A lot of them came up in church and when they crossed over to the world of pop, they brought the excitement with them. Subtract gospel and the blues and you get a world so square Lawrence Welk wouldn’t want anything to do with it.

We are all programmed to hear and love music. A good writer or performer will play you like a violin. Some use that power to extract money and increase their popularity. Gospel music, by contrast, is often called a ministry by it’s practitioners. You don’t need to be a believer to experience it. In the twenty plus years I have known the Wonders and The Queens I have never been evangelized. So remove that from the formula and embrace it in your own spiritual terms. This is not recruitment or commerce — it is unique in its generous motives. A present to all from a part of this city often passed over. To unwrap it all you have to is be there Friday where it will unfold and amaze you.

Musician John Sieger helped organize this concert and is a fan of Milwaukee’s gospel music scene.

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