This past Sunday, Ken Whiteley lead his gospel train into town and invited us all on board. Whatever beliefs listeners brought in with them, by the end there was no denying the power of this music. For years Whiteley has hosted gospel matinees at Hugh’s Room in Toronto, featuring a rotating cast of guest musicians joining together for an old-timey hymn sing. Thanks to Ontario Scene we got to experience the magic of these gospel shows here in Ottawa at the NAC’s 4th stage.
This particular afternoon featured Whiteley and his gospel group, the Beulah band (Frank Evans on banjo, Rosalyn Dennett on fiddle and Ben Whiteley holding down the bottom end on upright bass), the incredible vocals of the Levy singers, Amoy and Ciceal, Sharon Riley, and Samantha Martin and the so very soulful harmonica of Mike Stevens. Whiteley himself moved from acoustic guitar to tasty slide playing on the steel guitar, to mandolin to bluesy piano depending on a song’s needs. On the 19th century Appalachian hymn, “Lone Pilgrim,” he even brought out a drone producing shruti box he bought in Toronto’s Little India.
The show unfolded with a refreshingly relaxed and unscripted feel, musicians taking turns in leading songs of their choosing, the others building the sound around them and breaking into impressive improvised solos. The audience was equally relaxed, joining in singing, clapping and moving along to the songs. There were transcendent moments where the whole room joined in singing, on “I’ll Fly Away,” the “All aboard” in “People get ready,” and in a stirring communal rendition of “Amazing Grace.” There’s something so powerful about group singing and losing yourself in the collective sound. Whether it was the energy in the room or the anonymity of the darkness it’s not often you see that kind of enthusiasm.
You couldn’t lose with such a dynamic program featuring favourite hymns like “Happy Day,” and “It is well,” as well as deeply soulful originals like Amoy Levy’s “I love to praise him” with its call and response with the audience and rhythmic interplay in the vocals. One of the most interesting moments was the otherworldliness conjured up in “This may be the last time,” led by Samantha Martin. The rock solid conviction in her voice amplified the eerie lyrics and matching melody accompanied by creeping banjo and slide guitar lines, booming bass and Mike Stevens’ swampy harmonica. It was like stepping into a tent revival on a Mississippi bayou.
Sharon Riley shook the room on the songs she led, especially “It is well,” the grand old hymn, sung with its typical solemn tempo in the first verse before Ken shifted gears in the piano accompaniment, taking it into the rollicking territory familiar to most of the show. As it was Mother’s day, some of the musicians who’d lost their mothers performed songs in honour of their memory. Mike Stevens’ “Like a little bird” a song he wrote in his mother’s final days was especially stirring with a delicate beauty and a chorus made for group singing. Eager to close on a joyful note, Ken led us out with a spirited frenzy of a sing along on “I’m gonna live so God can use me.”
Calling something a spiritual experience is a touchy matter, thought whichever words you choose to describe it there’s no doubt that the power behind the performances and the music itself stirred something in all of us. A friend I ran into after the show remarked she’d cried a few times. Moments later I overheard people at the merch table saying how they too had been brought to tears. It’s rare to be so moved by music but then again this is gospel, and as Sharon Riley says “gospel makes your heart smile.”