Church is like a set of keys.
You take it everywhere.
The 27th Chicago Gospel Music Festival debuted Saturday in Ellis Park, 37th and Cottage Grove in the Bronzeville neighborhood that birthed American gospel music. It made sense have the festival in a deeply rooted community instead of its previous locations in Millennium Park, and before that Grant Park.
Ellis Park is next to West Point Missionary Baptist Church, a singing home of Albertina Walker, and just a few blocks away from Pilgrim Baptist Church, the spiritual center of the late Thomas A. Dorsey, "The Father of Gospel Music." By the time headliner Fred Hammond took the stage I'd guess nearly 10,000 people jammed into the park for a Saturday evening revival service. (The City of Chicago won't release attendance figures until the festival ends Sunday night.)
Here are five things that unlocked my soul on Saturday......
.......* The J.C. Singers.
I found this Roseland-based group singing a hard driving hybrid of gospel/pop and new jack soul in the Day Tent. The group is led by four female singers between the ages of 19 and 35 and they are anchored by a deep-in-the-pocket band that consisted of drums, keyboards, piano and a bassist with a "President Obama I've Got Your Back" tee shirt.
They formed 11 years ago. The J.C. sound is infectious, ranging from the traditionally rooted "Thank You Jesus" to the funk inspired "Makin' a Way," their hit single. The women's tight harmonies celebrate the beauty of family singing.
Turns out the women are (L TO R) Jacquille Campbell (searing lead), Raquel Thomas (tenor) Janice Campbell (alto), Jacqueline Campbell (top).
Too bad June Carter Cash isn't around.
The Day Tent accomplished what its title set out to do; providing gospel music from noon until about 4:45 p.m. The intimacy of the tent reminded me of a downsized gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, even though it was near an adjacent McDonald's Kids Activity Zone.
The main stage runs from 5 until about 7:30. The gospel festival does not go into the evening hours--there is no awesome concert lighting in Ellis Park, a twist which saves the city money.
* Ellis Park is named after tavern owner Samuel Ellis, who ran a bar at 35th Street near Vinceness Avenue in the 1830s.
Maybe someday the city will host a Southern Rock festival at Jimbo's Park in the shadow of U.S. Cellular Field.
* There isn't much gospel music in Belgium.
That why Robert Sacre flew to Chicago for the gospel festival.
"I'm doing field research," said Sacre, who teaches History of African American Literature and Music at Universite' de Liege in Liege, Belgium. "Chicago is the richest city I know for gospel. New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, all have good gospel. You in Chicago have so many churches south and west. And each church has a wonderful group."
Sacre, 72, has attended other Chicago gospel festivals.
He liked the new location. "It is better here because this is Bronzeville," he said. "This is where gospel was born."
* America is facing a helium shortage.
Lee Burns, 72, and his wife Joann were selling balloons near the festival entrance while catching the heavenly grooves.
They run Forever Balloons, 1543 E. 82nd St. "We're wondering why they switched it to the neighborhood," Lee Burns said. "We've been here three or four hours and haven't sold any balloons.. One balloon is a dollar and a quarter. There's a helium shortage across the United States. It's crippling the market for us. They use helium in hosptials and other places than just blowing balloons."
Paging all CNN gasbags.
* Mark Hubbard and the Voices featuring Angie Spivey.
They have appeared at previous Chicago gospel fests, but seeing at least 16 voices (I lost count) roar to the heavens in the Day Tent was a memorable experience. The old school groove of "Ain't It a Wonda (What God Can Do)" was in-your-face, and then down to your heart. Keen eyes would recognize Hubbard and some of the voices for their role in the sixth video installment of former gospel singer R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet' montage.
* I saw Marla Gordon and Linda Projanksy sprawled out on a white blanket reading the Wall Street Journal and the Saturday Chicago Sun-Times.
What's not to like about that?
It was their first gospel festival.
Marla, left and Linda, always reading "The Good News."
"We like gospel music and had no reserve about coming down here," said Gordon, a CPA who lives in Lincoln Park. Projansky is a retired human resources director who lives in Old Irving Park. Gordon said, "I thought it was unusual on the city website there was a line that said, 'Is it dangerous?' I thought that was a sad commentary. We drove down. We parked about a half a block away. We were going to take the CTA, but we couldn't figure out their website."
Parking was excellent, at least in the afternoon. I arrived around 2:30 p.m. and parked for free (no meters, no permit parking!) two blocks away at 38th and Langley.
Praise the Lord!