Gospel music is said by some to have originated in Chicago – mainly because its earliest professional recordings were here. And in any other year, the annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival would have had folks filling all the seats under the pavilion at Millennium Park downtown and many more sprawled across the lawn jetting out from it.
But on the second day of the weekend-long event this Saturday afternoon (June 1), the continuous threat of severe thunderstorms and drenching rain made the affair little more than a chance for hundreds of diehard gospel music lovers to prove their resiliency and their faith while enduring Mother Nature’s unrelentingly cruel wet joke, or as one host more eloquently put it – the Lord’s work.
Still, it was an event to remember – even with the chronic downpours – as special guest appearances, key historic commemorations and an update on the city’s plans to unveil the first National Museum of Gospel Music highlighted the evening.
In short, this festival featuring some of the nation’s top gospel recording artists was dripping wet and dripping in Chi-town swag!
The day’s marquee event, which was sponsored by the Stellar Awards (in conjunction with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) and cohosted by local TV news personality Terrell Brown and Chicago’s own gospel recording artist Charles Jenkins, had already been delayed due to sound problems on the main stage. It finally kicked off shortly after 5pm with Grammy- and Stellar Award-nominated artist James Fortune – the first of six national gospel music recording stars who took the stage to perform their latest and greatest hit singles.
The first half of the production was made for TV, with one act after another performing a hit or two in sets ranging from eight to twelve minutes long. In between the artists’ short sets – with cameras rolling – hosts Brown and Jenkins took turns telling jokes and hyping up local landmarks.
At one point they catered to the crowd by waging audience-response voting battles pitting Chicago’s famous restaurants against one another (for those interested, Harold’s won favorite chicken place, while Giordano’s took the best-pizza prize, based on the crowd’s reactions).
The hosts’ engaging personalities aside, the music was what we really came for. First, singer James Fortune – who hails from Texas – obliged by performing his rousing current hit “I Am.”
He was immediately followed by Grammy-nominated Motown Gospel singer Brian Courtney Wilson, a Chicago-raised artist who performed his 2018 smash “A Great Work.” As Wilson was being introduced, it was noted that he’d earlier set a record for having a song (“All I Need”) spend 89 straight weeks on the Billboard Hot Gospel Songs chart. “A Great Work” itself spent more than half a year in the top ten, peaking at No. 3 last fall and finishing among the year’s biggest hits.
Next up was relative newcomer Maranda Curtis who, at 39, is just starting to get her blessings. After just three releases – two EPs and a live album (all since 2017) – Curtis received her first-ever Stellar Award nominations this past cycle with six. Her most recent big hit – and crowd favorite – “Nobody Like You Lord” was a top-5 smash that ranked as the 16th-biggest gospel single of 2018, according to Billboard.
Of course, Curtis performed that ballad – along with her latest release, the decidedly more upbeat “I’m All In.”
The event wasn’t just about the gospel artists who performed, though.
The city’s recently elected officials were recognized as well, including new mayor Lori Lightfoot (not present) and its two other citywide-elected position incumbents: city clerk (Anna M. Valencia) and city treasurer (Melissa Conyears-Ervin). The three were noted for making this the first time in history that all three of Chicago’s citywide elected positions were held by women of color.
The hosts also commemorated the beginning of Black Music Month, which former President Carter had designated June exactly 40 years earlier, and which former President Obama renamed as African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009.
Also, Stellar Awards co-founder Don Jackson made a brief appearance to update folks on long-established plans to build the $32-million National Museum of Gospel Music on the site of Chicago’s historic Pilgrim Baptist Church, which was destroyed by fire in 2006. With original plans to open its doors in 2020, Jackson noted in his speech that it’s now slated for 2022.
In one of the day’s more curious moments, gregarious host Terrell Brown thanked the crowd for hanging in there, and noted that he was so glad it didn’t rain – except it had been raining on-and-off several times during the event. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed all the umbrellas that had been raised earlier or the dripping-wet, empty seats under the pavilion.
But he could be forgiven for this faux pas, which he more than made up for by constantly engaging the crowd with his upbeat demeanor and salesman-like personality (note to ABC 7 Eyewitness News: just don’t move him to meteorologist any time soon).
Less than an hour into the event, the night’s fourth recording act, and equally charismatic host Charles Jenkins, Jr. took the stage to perform his new song “Keep the Faith,” from a forthcoming, long-awaited album of the same name. Jenkins, who also serves as one of Chicago’s most beloved pastors at Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, recently announced his plans to retire from that post by December 2019.
Minutes later, the most swag-filled performance of the night came from the hot act Anthony Brown and Group TherAPy, who performed their current top-20 gospel chart hit, “Blessings on Blessings.” Brown, who received the warmest crowd reception of all when his name was announced, was noted for having set a record in 2016 by winning ten Stellar Awards in one night.
On this stage, he and his backing choir showed off some nifty dance moves as they taught the audience a new line dance, in honor of the city where Stepping began.
He then followed “Blessings” with “Trust in You,” his ballad containing the refrain “You did not create me to worry, You did not create me to fear…” It was one of many moments where audience members raised their hands in surrender as they praised their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The timing of Brown’s message could not have been more perfect, with his song and yet another drenching downpour combining to serve as an unintended alter-call as people filled the isles to seek shelter under the fancy, but not fully waterproof pavilion rooftop.
With rainwater seeping through the seams of the partial roof’s contoured sections, people scrambled to find spaces where the water wasn’t draining in. Eventually, their efforts became futile as the only people prevented from becoming soaked were those who were wise enough to bring umbrellas in the first place (yours truly not included).
Finally, the day’s last act for the TV production – 2016 Stellar Award Best New Artist winner Casey J – made her appearance. She marked the end of the first half of the show with a stirring performance of the song, “If God.”
When she finished, news anchor and festival host Terrell Brown announced that the TV portion of the event was over and the real “praise party in the rain” was about to begin.
It was nice that he acknowledged “the Lord’s work” more accurately this time, with the rain now becoming torrential in spots, but we weren’t about to stick around for Part Two of this festive yet extremely wet fellowship experience.
It was time to make our way to another of Chicago’s landmarks, the Chicago Transit Authority and the shelter of the combined train/bus ride home.
But we were ultimately satisfied. The artists had volunteered their time (according to the hosts they were not paid) and they all put on great performances that had the crowd amped and which we were able to see up-close-and-personal – and free of charge.
You can’t ask for much more than that from one of the city’s great music festivals celebrating Chicago’s rich music legacy!
P.S.: This article is dedicated to my visiting little cousin Shannon, 33, whose idea it was to check out this festival. I’m just glad I got to enjoy it with him.
P.S.S.: Quick note – On the festival’s other stage – the smaller Spirit Stage – were several local and up-and-coming gospel acts who performed from noon to 4pm. Among them were the beautiful quartet of ladies known as All4Love and singer Bridgette Hurt, who was promoting her single “My Liberty.” Shannon got the chance to meet both and took pictures with Ms. Hurt.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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