Gospel brunch becomes a Sunday staple in D.C.
By Chris Richards,
If you want some God with your grits, plan to show up around 9 a.m.
That’s when the line starts forming for the first of two gospel brunches held each Sunday at the Hamilton, a nightclub that opened in December in the shell of a shuttered Borders bookstore on 14th and F streets NW.
Queues used to wrap around this corner in the name of Harry Potter. Now, the Sunday morning scrum includes churchgoers, church skippers, extended families and hung-over tourists, all eager to hear a choir deliver the good news while the assembled deliver waffles to their bellies.
Denise Norman of Fort Washington is forgoing a morning in the pews to celebrate her mother’s 80th birthday over eggs and coffee. “I think if you do miss church, you feel like you went,” Norman says. “The choir is singing. There’s fellowship. And the brunch is good.”
So is business. Thanks to the Hamilton and the Howard Theatre, the U Street corridor landmark that reopened its doors in April, Washington’s gospel brunch scene is booming. Every Sunday, both venues offer soul food buffets and live performances, capitalizing on gospel music’s growing reach into the secular world and drawing a new clientele to their relatively new nightspots.
“The people attending the brunch come from all walks of life,” says Doretha Allen, who sings with the Harlem Gospel Choir at the Howard on Sundays. “Some of them are into the church thing. Some are just coming to eat and be entertained.”
The smell of smoked bacon and maple syrup billows through the Howard, but backstage it smells like Sephora. Allen and three other women in the choir are dabbing on lip gloss, smoothing out eye shadow, preparing to lift their voices in praise.
“Gospel music speaks to the soul, it speaks to the heart,” says Lillye Berry, an alto in the choir. “It’s the heart that allows you to make changes in your life. So you never know who you’re talking to. They might come here down in the dumps, and the music that we sing lifts them up.”
Soon, Berry and the others are onstage wailing, fiery and airtight. Across rows of tables, certain brunchers appear spellbound. They set down their forks. They nod their heads. They clap their hands to the rhythm. They rise up from their seats.
They march off to the buffet for seconds.
The collision of music and mimosas isn’t entirely new to Washington. Jazz brunches have dotted the city for years. The Corcoran Gallery of Art hosted gospel brunches in its atrium for nearly a decade. (They were nixed in 2007 after non-brunching gallery visitors complained that the music was too loud.)
Before that, the gospel brunch concept was popularized by the House of Blues nightclub chain, which began hosting them in 1994. Back then, Kevin Morrow was the chain’s senior vice president of entertainment. Today, he’s the senior vice president of touring for Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter.
Morrow says he’s not surprised by the D.C. brunch boom: Washington “could very well be the number one market in the country for gospel music.”
And if anyone is keeping tabs, it’s Live Nation. After years of promoting the likes of Madonna, Jay-Z and U2, the promotion company recently launched the King’s Men, a 16-city arena tour featuring gospel superstars Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Marvin Sapp and Israel Houghton. Landing at Verizon Center on Oct. 6, it marks the first time the promoter has put its muscle into a gospel tour of this size.
Earlier this year, Live Nation made much bigger investments in electronic dance music, buying up various dance music promotion companies, hoping to profit off a growing genre and its devout fan base. Does the King’s Men tour foreshadow similar bets on gospel?
“When you put your toe in the water to see the temperature — that’s kind of how we’re doing it with this,” Morrow says. “We’re hoping that this becomes another kind of music that we can promote.”
Might be tough. The record industry has produced plenty of gospel stars over the decades, but some fans are still accustomed to hearing this music in church — and for free. Tickets to see the King’s Men at Verizon Center cost between $29.50 and $99. “You’re not going to be charging Madonna-like prices for that kind of tour,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a publication that covers the concert business.
On the club level, the economics are different. Sunday brunch at the Howard Theatre will cost fans $20 to 35 in advance, $30 to 45 at the door. “We’ve been selling out almost every Sunday,” says Steven Bensusan, president of the Blue Note Entertainment Group, the New York-based agency that books the Howard. “It’s been a great success.”
The Hamilton also boasts solid attendance at its weekly brunch doubleheader, and recently bumped the ticket price up from $25 to $30. Daniel Schwartz, production manager and local talent buyer at the Hamilton, says that although the brunches don’t make the venue a huge profit, they help bring new ears inside the club.
“You get a whole different crowd in the morning,” Schwartz says. “The thing that every race, creed and color seems to agree upon is gospel music.”
Inside the Hamilton, a large portrait of Bob Dylan looms above a carving station offering heat-lamped hunks of ham and brisket. Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix gaze at guys in madras shorts and ladies in their Sunday pearls navigating the smorgasbord, stacking their plates with French toast and citrus pound cake.
Framed photos of rock deities adorn nearly every surface of the Hamilton, but backstage, the graffiti is more impressive. Scrawled on the green-gray walls in red Sharpie: “Jesus was here.”
Twenty-eight members of the Howard Gospel Choir of Howard University are crammed back here, searching for the sleeves in their robes like a flash mob in a fitting room. Reggie Golden, the choir’s director and a Howard University senior majoring in music, shakes his dreadlocks free from a ponytail and calls for a pre-show prayer.
Why are he and his choir preparing to take the stage instead of the altar?
“Ministry doesn’t just happen in the church,” Golden says. “We have to take what we learn there, out. So this is one opportunity to bring the message.”
Roderick Giles, who leads the Harlem Gospel Choir at the Howard Theater’s brunch each Sunday, shares that philosophy. Plus, the choir’s six singers have already sung in their own churches this morning. Brunch is Act Two. (Their respective churches aren’t in Harlem — these are all local singers that the Blue Note has branded as an extension of the storied, New York-based Harlem Gospel Choir.)
Today, they’ll be singing for families mustered for birthdays, couples celebrating anniversaries, pastors who came straight from church and a group of African government officials here on a State Department-sponsored day trip.
“People really love gospel music,” Giles says. “It doesn’t matter who they are.”
Plan a Brunch Outing
The Hamilton hosts two gospel brunches every Sunday. At the morning brunch, doors open at 10 a.m., and the performance begins at 10:30. At the afternoon brunch, doors open at 12:30 p.m., and the performance begins at 1. The Hamilton’s performers change from week to week. Tickets are $30. The Hamilton is at 600 14th St. NW, Washington, D.C. For information, visit www.thehamiltondc.com .
The Howard Theatre hosts one gospel brunch every Sunday. Doors open at noon for a performance beginning at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $35 in advance, $30 to $45 at the door. The Harlem Gospel Choir performs every week. The Howard Theatre is at 620 T St. NW, Washington, D.C. For information, visit