After the Book Expo closed, the timing was perfect to get to Madison Square Garden at 4:30. It was actually called the McDonald’s Gospel show, sponsored by you-know-who. And yes it was more than a bit weird, this wonderful music sponsored by producers of unhealthy hi-fat shit food served on planet-polluting throw-away dishes. The place was packed and tickets were $50-110. First up were gospel groups, each of whom did about a 3-minute song and then the next one came right on. Pretty snappy. The groups were from Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, the Bronx, etc. and they ranged from OK to spectacular. Most were great and better. When a soloist would get her gospel chops going, people would stand and cheer. Some of the groups knew they had it, you just looked at them and knew they were hot. There was some electrifying music, some exquisite renderings. There were 3 and 4 part harmonies, the art and craft of vocal harmonies at a high level.
Next were a bunch of dancing groups, doing steps to recorded gospel music. One group of guys aged about 40 down to 5 years old did a martial arts gospel routine that kicked ass. Then 6 kids came up on the stage to do solos. And, weirdness of weirdness, here was the Ronald McDonald clown on stage as well. I don’t know if it was more surreal or disgusting. Corporations greasing their way into the arts. Aside from that, the kids were excellent. Gospel singing is in healthy shape, it’s being passed along down from elders to the kids in the black community. A pony-tailed 5-year old girl brought the audience to its feet. You couldn’t believe a tiny kid could sing and dance like this. A 10 year old boy in a white suit sang in a beautiful unique strong voice. An 11 year old girl (who has just released her first CD) was electrifying, doing vocal gymnastics like adult gospel divas.
Cissy Houston walked out on stage. Probably in her 60s, tall and graceful, wearing a long cream-colored dress. (Whitney Huston’s mom.) Backing her was the McDonald’s Gospel Band, about 40 singers wearing McDonalds red polo shirts. More weirdness, but they were good! Cissy was fabulous, a great combo. Next out came the Queen, and believe me she still is. I’ve never seen Aretha in person and didn’t know what to expect. Sometimes artists don’t maintain quality in later years. Aretha has had her troubles. Not to worry. She came with a razorsharp band from Detroit and about 20 backup singers. She walked out on stage, a full-bodied woman, wearing a flowing white silk dress with a purple choir-type over-garment. Aretha hasn’t lost any of her power, oh no. It’s like she never left the church. Her voice, the band, the backups, were a smash. As she got more into it, Madison Square Garden got smaller. It was like an intimate club, her voice filling all space.
Aretha thankfully wasn’t just there to pick up a McDonald’s paycheck. She settled in, was gracious, she talked to people, she interacted with the backup ladies, the band, and with a male singer who joined her onstage. She did a lot of songs. She rocked. At one point she said I feel like dancing and shuffle-danced across the stage to the roar of her fans.
I have a hard time sitting for very long, so I walked around in the hall a bit. There were little kids everywhere, 100s of them in the performing gospel groups and many more with their parents. To tell the truth I’ve always thought that black gospel music was the best thing that ever came out of Christianity — these guys got it right. This music is full of the joy and wonder and rhythm of the universe.