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United As One Tour @ Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ

Feb. 18, 2013

Feb. 19, 2013
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James Fortune
Efficiency. It’s not the first word usually coming to mind when it comes to music historically emanating from the African-American church. But even with the style’s semi-improvisatory nature, the United As One Tour playing Holy Redeemer Institutional God In Christ Monday night provided a model of restraint and economy.

Though the evening's four acts—Zacardi Cortez, VaShawn Mitchell, Kierra Sheard and James Fortune alongside his co-ed vocal sextet, FIYA—played in the order their popularity and longevity as national presences on soul gospel radio stations such as Milwaukee's WGLB-AM would logically dictate, each was given about 30 minutes to ply their contemporary spins on one of the most traditional sounds in the American musical cannon. 

Fortune's FIYA accompanied every singer on the bill. Assuming they would have rehearsed anyway, many of the songs they accompanied for a packed sanctuary have been such ubiquitous hits not only in the gospel world, but among adult R&B listeners and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, the more European-American realm of contemporary Christian praise&worship music (more on that later) that they could have arranged their accents on the songs' arrangements from musical osmosis.

Fortune has had a recent general market crossover via his encouraging smooth jazz collaboration with gospel stalwart Fred Hammond and R&B gal Monica, "Hold On." The members of FIYA he allowed solos during their closing set have it in them to replace that single's guests, yet Fortune, probably wisely, led them in pieces more easily allowing the aforementioned solos, such as "I Believe," and a medley that included snippets of Andrae' Crouch's evergreen "My Tribute" and a churchy reclamation of the nonsense syllables in Cannibal and the Headhunters' '60s frat rocker "Land of 1.000 Dances." Visually, Fortune wins the honor for the concert's nattiest dresser in his roomy suit and tie offsetting his bald pate. FIYA were more casually attired, one among them sporting the tour's black-on-white T-shirt.

Sheard has gospel in her lineage; she's the daughter of Karen Clark Sheard of the famed Clark Sisters. With four albums since ’04, when she was still a mere high schooler, Sheard need not lean on her family name. She did, however, summon her professional connections with a rendition of R&B gospel sister duo Mary Mary's "God In Me," on which she originally sang background. Though remaining Sheard's most prominent moment in the mainstream, its somewhat materialistic lyrics contrast with her sumptuous take on "Indescribable," a vividly poet worship song by Chris Tomlin, the white Christian market artist whose Burning Lights recently debuted atop Billboard's overall album sales chart. Somewhere between those poles, "You Are" found her singing through biblical names for God over a stomping beat recalling "You Brought The Sunshine," the ’80s club jam by her mother's former sibling ensemble.

Mitchell may not have some of Sheard's advantages of birthright and exposure, but he compensates amply. His songwriting and production prowess yielded "Nobody Greater," one of 2011's most dominant black church anthems, a top 20 urban adult contemporary radio entry and a compositionally stunning piece of song craft bridging old-fashioned and newfangled soul gospel impulses. Mitchell and FIYA got all the way through it, but not so his latest smash, "Turning Around For Me," which was reduced to an extended coda. Elsewhere, Mitchell incorporated another Tomlin tune, "Or God Is Greater" into one of his own similarly-themed song.

Cortez's high profile goes back to singing lead on one of Fortune's mid-'00s biggies, but only in the past couple years has his solo career ramped up in earnest. With a voice recalling the husky baritone of longtime choir directing singer John P. Kee, of whose "Jesus Is Real" he sang a bit when all four shared the sanctuary platform at the show's beginning, his songs dwell heavily on divine providence and withstanding life's tumult. Oddly, his best-known such piece, "One More Time," didn't figure among his otherwise moving repertoire.

Billed as the event's master of ceremonies, comedian and UniverSoul Circus ringmaster Shuckey Duckey only really provided two things: a monologue regarding racial pride to coincide with Black History Month and some appropriate introductory stand-up, including an especially funny jape about the ratio of handicapped parking spaces to healings among one congregation. Prior to Duckey, opening prayer, Bible reading and songs, including another by Tomlin, by Holy Redeemer staffers of both genders and its choir kicked things off with a band to rival the players who abetted the headliners.


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