Gospel: Spirit of Harlem comes to Hackney
Sunday 08 March 1998
Yet gospel has never really spread. It enters the mainstream only as an infusion (Eric Clapton's new album) or an accessory (the credits to TFI Friday). Most of us cannot name a single gospel singer: the great voices of the genre become famous only if they leave for the watery pastures of "soul". Gospel is still waiting for its Bob Marley, or even its Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
But here comes a contender: Queen Esther Marrow, with her group, the Harlem Gospel Singers, trotting the globe for the first time. After a week in Birmingham, they're doing 21 nights at the Hackney Empire. Gospel never left anyone short of ambition.
Queen Esther, 50ish, is dressed like an altar, in yards of yellow silk with a panel of spangly sky-blue down the middle. Her 14-strong choir are dressed like the venue, in red velvet. The six-man band are in charcoal Nehru suits. They all change at the interval (you wouldn't want a job in Wardrobe). The audience ranges from fellows in M&S jumpers to brothers in Nike, and plenty of black women.
The music ranges even wider. The singing is nearly all gospel, but the backing includes most of its relations, from blues to white pop ("Walking on Sunshine"). This doesn't always work: Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" starts so frantically that it has nowhere to go. There is a dire comedy routine involving the pianist (Bahnamous Bowie, son of Lester Bowie and Fontella Bass) playing the wrong tune, and forgetting that music, like sport, is only fun when taken seriously.
The bad bits are outnumbered by moments of transcendent joy. Richard Bellazzin's bass (voice, not guitar) shakes the rafters and stirs the soul on "Without a Song". The choir (above) conjure up the purest beauty with an unaccompanied medley of spirituals. The Queen herself is regally throaty in a highly personalised "Grandma's Hands", which eases into a powerful version of Marvin Gaye's "Abraham, Martin and John". That in turn sets up a sermon about standing up for justice and peace, which extends from Dr King to Princess Diana, "who didn't have to but she did anyway". She may be the first Briton ever to show up on the radar of gospel. The crowd loved this, as they loved everything else. Go if you can.
Hackney Empire, E8 (0181 985 2424), to Sun 15 Mar.
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