I’m thankful that gospel is making a comeback.
Not that it ever really left. But with each new release I can see the influence of my parents’ generation clearly. With all this new music, sounding sort of vintage-modern and having a very deep connection with gospel as well as being unapologetically Black (“Ultralight Beam”, “Sunday Candy”, “u”), I would perhaps forgive you for being confused about what decade it actually is. Which leads me to last night, when I saw the gospel quartet the Fairfield Four perform at South on Main as a part of the Oxford American’s Archetypes & Troubadours Concert Series, a thing my mother would be very proud of me for.
You may remember them from their brief cameo appearance in the Coen brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” where they were, I think, the only people of color in a film heavy on gospel music. But they won the Best Roots Gospel Album at the 58th Grammy Awards a few weeks ago and despite their age and busy schedules, still find the time to tour the world.
People will make the easy comparison and say that attending a Fairfield Four performance is “just like going to church.” And I guess in some ways it is: I got there a little late, because of my work schedule, and I left a little bit early, to make sure I could pick up some food on the way home.
But it’s better than all that. It’s church without the fashion show (the foursome wear overalls, white button down shirts, black bowties, and tuxedo jackets to round out the ensemble); without the personal politics or exclusionary policies. Seeing the Fairfield Four is the Campbellian Meeting With The Goddess, where all unnecessary airs and posturing are stripped away. What you are left with is pure joy, maybe even Salvation.
Faced with a choice between the two, I will always go with the congregation of self-described gospel music fans rather than step foot inside a designated house of worship, even if most of the members enthusiastically clap on the one-and-a-half and three-and-a-half (please see Prince’s “DMSR”). South on Main, with its intimate stage and delicate lighting will suit me just fine, so long as the Fairfield Four’s voices are filling the room.
It is nearly impossible to explain their raw emotional power with words and without gestures (I’m flailing my arms madly as I type this). The smooth tenor of Levert Allison floating over the bedrock doo-wop baritone of Larrice Bird, with the tenor of Bobbye Sherrell and group senior Joe Thompson’s bass filling in the spaces in between.
Indeed, the singers are more than the sum of their parts and in their best, most lucid moments, they become a vehicle for the Big Entity, offering the wisdom of experience from the stage to all who will listen.
And sometimes, singing salves the collective conscience, the knowledge of the elders exactly what we need. It might not always get you through a tight spot but we can’t move forward with confidence unless we know where we come from.