Jump up, shout and scream

A hip new generation of gospel acts is packing out British venues. Geoff Brown gets on his good foot and gets down for Jesus
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Hezekiah Walker, leader of one of several rising young American gospel choirs, says that British audiences respond more readily to live gospel music than any other. As his previous live albums were recorded in the more recognised gospel hotbeds of Atlanta, his native New York, and Toronto, who are we to quibble? And so here we gather in the unsanctified vessel of the Wembley Conference Centre on a chilly Friday night.

As in secular R&B music, a new generation of gospel acts has suddenly appeared. Some, like Kirk Franklin, have animated their gospel message with hip hop and rap sounds, while others, like Walker and his huge choir, have been more conservative in their approach. In sections of the US music business, the belief is that, following Franklin's breakthrough into the mainstream, gospel music will grow in the same way that country music did after Garth Brooks' crossover success, particularly with the continuing sour publicity engendered by rap. Both the industry and the increasing African American middle class want this badly.

In the slowly filling Conference Centre foyer, three stalls attract browsers. One features the CDs, videos and official programme of tonight's star, another displays the videos and books of a remarkably prolific American author named Bishop TD Jakes (his titles include Manpower - Healing the Wounded Man Within, and - one for the ladies in the house - Sovereign Answers to Sensitive Situations in You). The third stall attracts the biggest cluster. The products here reflect the way American gospel has been going in the past 10 years. There are CDs by the Gospel Gangstas, with titles fashionably misspelt, and by one E Rock. There is a James Brown CD and a Jackson Family CD - young gospel acts, not pioneers of funk and pop-soul.

Talk is as loud and bubbly as you'll hear at any secular concert but with no swearing. Eventually, two men from gospel show specialists Peak Promotions make announcements, leading the audience into a brief chorus of "Blessed Be the Rock of My Salvation" (try imagining Harvey Goldsmith coaxing Stones fans into choruses of "Ruby Tuesday"...), which pretty much fixes the Hallelujah mood from the off. There is a prayer, some "modern" ballet, we pre-record three levels of applause for editing into the CD at a later date and then are invited to jump up, shout and scream.

The man two rows in front closes the hefty Bible he's been reading as members of Walker's choir file on stage, a stream of men and women of all shapes and sizes, all draped in loose, yellow and black cloaks. Skilled, rehearsed, polished, powerful, they rip through big gospel choral pieces singing of release, of finding "a new way of walking, a new way of talking."

Walker, done up tight in black suit and yellow tie, grows into the performance, first as choirmaster and then as "preacher". On stage, he is a gospel traditionalist, telling stories from the Bible, leavening message with get-down. "I may not be dressed up with clothes, but I am dressed up with righteousness," he says. "I came here to clap hands. I came here to dance... I feel a dance coming," and he does the gospel dance, body stiff and straight, feet twisting and wriggling in a blur of patent leather. Soloists from the choir aren't as immediately charismatic - not even Monique Walker, Hezekiah's wife, who sings "Try Christ" - but they all eventually "upset" the other women in the audience. As the band - which uses three drummers in rotation - pumps into the tough funk-gospel of "Free to Praise Him", the choir does gospel hand-jive, pushing hands at the ceiling three times, clapping once, then bending to do four handrolls at the floor. Pretty soon, the crowd is in sync.

Not for the first time, we're encouraged to look at our neighbour and say something positive. This time it's "We got the victory", also the title of a thumping funk piece that has the makings of a soccer stadium shaker.

As the Conference Centre empties, Walker's audience mixes with folk leaving Wembley Arena. They've just attended the Benny Hinn Miracle Service. The audiences mingle on the appropriately named Jubilee Line, heading south back into central London from Wembley, the carriages crammed Tokyo- style. A drunk squeezes on at Finchley Road. He is struck sober to find no one remotely inebriated at this hour and in this place, and wonders why, aloud. He is promptly evangelised