Kirk Franklin and Family Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Since Ray Charles and Sam Cooke "invented" soul music, gospel chords, songs and singers have been appropriated by secular music as a matter of course. Gospel, meanwhile, has occasionally "modernised" itself, usually by smoothing all rough edges and using state-of-the-art production techniques, as typified by the slew of singers surnamed Winans.

Now, it's payback time and Kirk Franklin has the bill in his hand. A choir-leader in the tradition of James Cleveland, Franklin, in his early twenties, has the build of Prince, works the stage like Morris Day, conducts his excellent eight-voice choir (in the USA it would be twice the size) with a flick of the head or shrug of the shoulder, struts with the cockiness of a hip hop star and scoops up secular styles from all over - calypso, reggae, samba, P-Funk and, obviously, soul.

His mixture of traditional gospel singing values in eclectic clothes and 1990s presentation has helped Kirk Franklin & The Family, his first album on a fledgling independent label, Gospo Centric, sell 1.5 million - unheard of for a gospel debut (it has been selling faster than Boyz II Men or TLC in some areas). The second album, Whatcha Lookin' 4, reached 23 on the Billboard pop album charts, topped the Gospel and Contemporary Christian (ie vapid white gospel) charts and became the first gospel LP to reach the R&B Top 10 since 1972. The man has spread his word.

Kirk appeals to young fans who might be more excited by gangsta rap because he's been down in the 'hood - abandoned by his parents at the age of three, raised by a distant aunt, offered a recording contract at age seven, made a Minister of Music in his church at 11. Soon after, he was an off-the- rails youth in a gang, redeemed only when a close friend was shot and killed.

Now he's a man in a grey suit - but it's a zoot suit and his white collarless shirt is matched by blindingly white shoes. His eight singers are seven Tons Of Joy (two men, five women) plus a token slimline woman and they make a righteously big-voiced noise.

"You wanna have church with me?" he challenges in the manner of a rapper, though grandparents in the 98 per cent black audience - many family groups spanned three generations - will have recalled Havin' Church, a landmark James Cleveland album. The refrains veer from standard gospel choruses ("I'd rather have Jesus than silver and gold," arranged like the swaying chorus of an AOR ballad) to urgent call-and-response.

"What would happen," he wonders aloud, "if James Brown got saved?" before he and The Family rip into "Sex Machine". He's led off exhausted, like the Godfather of Soul in a mock fainting fit, except Franklin's "cape" is a more prosaic towel.

He returns to close with the title track of his second album, teaching the audience to do "The Devil Stomp", with vigorous, leggy steps. These days, it seems as if Satan doesn't even have the best dances.

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