Festival of Praise Fred Hammond. Fred Hammond's posse of top-tier is the biggest sould gospel concert draw of 2015.

Festival Of Praise:Fred Hammond/Donnie McClurkin/Israel Houghton/Isaac Carree/Kim Burrell/Jessica Reedy/Zacardi Cortez/Marcus D. Wiley 
The Milwaukee Theatre 
Milwaukee, WI 
22 November 2015

Since Kirk Franklin hasn't yet announced tour dates to support his latest album released this fall, Festival Of Praise is indubitably 2015's biggest soul gospel concert draw. Even were Franklin were to hit the road by year's end, he'd be hard pressed to wrangle together the posse of top-tier talent in his genre that Fred Hammond has with FOP.

Apart from being something of a pioneer, especially with his '80s-'90s tenure in R & B gospel group Commissioned, and his continued status as a solo hit maker, sharing the stage with him for FOP are two of the singers who played alongside Franklin on his co-headlining 2012 King's Men tour. Ordained pastor Donnie McClurkin and frequent music director for word-faith prosperity gospel preacher Joel Osteen, Israel Houghton, have records of general, market R & B  and contemporary Christian crossover. But the rest of bill who are still primarily known in in gospel music and majority-Afrimerican church circles--pastorix Kim Burrell, former Men Of Standard crooner Isaac Carree, relative newbies Jessica Reedy and Zacardi Cortez and comedian/frequent co-host of gospel gal Yolanda Adams' syndicated morning radio show Marcus D. Wiley--made themselves useful and compelling throughout the 2&3/4-hour presentation.
Or at least that's how it went down in Milwaukee where all seven singers and the funnyman in tow came out, all wearing casual white tops and pants (Reedy broke rank in a a dress of the same color), on the stage of one of the city's better-appointed theaters. Difficulties in obtaining my promotional ticket from the will-call window led me to enter the fest' as the first--or so I hope--number was underway. It sounded to be a medley based on one of Hammond's early post-Commissioned smashes as leader of the choir Radical For Christ, "Let The Praise Begin." As the five-piece band behind them worked up an increasingly complex groove, it dawned on me that much of contemporary soul gospel owes '60s-'80s funk a greater debt than does most mainstream urban radio fare.

Not long after that thought came to mind, toward the end of the introductory medley, McClurkin broke in with the chorus of Sly & The Family Stone's "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice lf Agin)." That subtiular, erm, agin (again?) may be soteriologically problematic, but the redolence of funk was confirmed. A more loping melodic motif informed Carree's first solo contribution of the evening, "But God." Later he would assay his probably needlessly controversial near-rewrite of R. Kelly's epic "Trapped In The Closet," "Take This House."

The ladies on stage weren't about out-funking the gents but had their own kind of danceability about them. Though the stage set-up didn't allow Burrell the opportunity to show off her piano chops, she brought an airier feel to the bounce of her current radio chart-climber, "Thank You Jesus(That's What He's Done)" without losing its feel of '80s post-disco uptempo soul (some record collectors would call it boogie). Reedy's perky "Put It On The Altar" may be the closest to old school churchiness of the like Roberta or Mahalia Jackson could have sassed up, but it will likely figure into the playlist of the upcoming gospel skate night being promoted in a nearby Milwaukee 'burb by glossy postcards being handed out  upon entering the event.

Burrell may not have had access to anything other than her voice, but Houghton did. Though his association with Osteen betrays a lack of discernment at the very least (ditto Hammond's close association with oneness Pentecostal prosperity promulgator T.D. Jakes), that doesn't discount his tuneful way with a melody and youthfully soulful tenor singing. Nor his guitar prowess, which he employed to light fusion jazz effect during his few solo opportunities. Fittingly, a couple of those were during the integration of a couple of his anthemic praise & worship numbers that also included Hammond's propulsive "Awesome God." That's a wholly different song than Rich Mullins' pop-folk chestnut, for those unfamiliar.

Hammond made mention of the need for his genre to keep up with worldly hip-hop and t&b in terms of sponsorship. Though the quartets and soloists traveling "the gospel highway" of churches and other venues to perform during the music's golden age from the mid '40s to the mid-'60s didn't seem to have that concern, Hammond may have a point in so far as gospel being a victim of its own success. The sound and lighting rigs to tour FOP are certainly more extravagant than, for instance, what would have been needed to put on a program that same same evening at a church in Milwaukee consisting of of local quartets and choirs where admission was a new Christmas toy for an underprivileged child and a couple of self-stable food items.

World Vision, the long-running Christian non-profit benefiting children and families in economically underdeveloped areas, had been a sponsor of a previous Hammond tour, and here he confessed to nearly not having them on board again because of ungracious online correspondence he received about the charity's pitch interrupting the show. He stuck with WV, though, and mentioned a recent trip to Nigeria in conjunction with them. The tour's other sponsor is the more curious LifeReimagined.com, a website and app that offers multi-faceted life consultation/coaching for a monthly fee. Hammond and Burrell, who appeared in a promotional video for the company wherein the former says the latter has been touted as a modern day equivalent to late jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald (eh, maybe...), seem to be gung ho supporters; a quick check through its site homepage reveals no overt Christian connections, but a good deal about subscribers' "purpose." So maybe Rick Warren has something to do with it?
Regardless, pitches for FOP's sponsors and an introduction to the band and background singers (one of the latter being a hometown lass) filled much of a15-minute break before a mostly slower-paced second half began. Wiley got in his best bit of the night as a preface to the singing to follow when he ribbed about how when his "street pharmacist" cousin completed a prison stint-and how he was calmer about having to do the time than were most of his churchgoing kin-he got some education while incarcerated and opened an electrical business upon his release.

That effectively set up a run of songs that explored themes of closeness to and reliance on the Lord, such as one of Cortez' two standout moments, "One On One," and Reedy's affecting "Better." The latter was abetted by lines of text describing instances of many people's self-doubts and denigration. And apart from a public domain hymn Houghton adapted earlier, this run of slowies featured the night's oldest song, McClurkin's early '90s breakthrough. "Stand" (not the Sly & The Family Stone number).

Not long thereafter, while the band playing McClurkin's remake of Bob Carlisle's "We Fall Down," though he didn't sing it, Pastor Donnie gave an somewhat peculiar altar call. His assumption seemed to have been that more re-commitment to Christianity rather than outright salvation, was necessary among an audience doubtless mostly comprised of black Sunday pew-fillers. As the lip of the stage was flooded with respondents to the entreaty, his declaration of "That's what evangelism is all about!" seemed all the odder. I've heard McClurkin preach and explain scripture pretty soundly in the past, so his display here struck me as curious. Here's hoping it was divinely useful all the same.

FOP ended on an upbeat, Princely note with Caree's lyrically vulnerable, musically  lean, retro punk funk-styled "In The Middle," with the rest of his co-headlining cohort chiming in with background vocals on the chorus. However mired in associations with questionable doctrine and theology today's soul gospel may be, Hammond's one-night festival offers a solidly entertaining evening of African-American vernacular music with Jesus somewhere in the middle of it.

-Jamie Lee Rake