"I would not like to be in the judges' position tonight," master of ceremonies Andrew Rowe remarked to the audience at last night's third annual Kentucky Fried Chicken Gospel Music Competition. "Amen?"
"Amen!" the crowd responded.
Searing vocals, colorful wardrobes and meticulously synchronized choral arrangements kept a full Kennedy Center Concert Hall clapping to the music as 10 finalists from the Baltimore and Washington areas competed one on one in the categories of choir, ensemble, youth choir, female soloist and male soloist.
While the judges were conferring, guest stars Edwin Hawkins and Tramaine Hawkins got the audience on its feet and clapping.
"Loosen up and praise the Lord," Tramaine Hawkins urged the crowd, which had sat politely through most of the finalists' performances, not wanting to upset their intricate numbers.
After a few of her songs prompted sporadic outbursts, Hawkins finally sparked the crowd with an energetic chant of "Hold on, Jesus! Hold on, Savior!" Rising and sinking on the stage floor as sweat dripped from her face, Hawkins had most of the audience standing by the time she proclaimed "Jesus is real!"
By the end of the evening, Maryland churches claimed four of the five victories.
Baltimore's King Choral Ensemble, with a rousing version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," took best-choir honors.
The First Baptist Church Youth Choir, also of Baltimore, won in its category with an uplifting performance of "Move Mountain." The 61 singers, clad in red and white robes, swayed as their director waved his arms fervently and audience members yelled "hallelujah."
"Great Change," a seven-member Washington group vying for a professional gospel career, won the ensemble category with a gentle rendition of "I Shall Wear a Crown When I Get Home."
In the female soloist category, the winner was Elizabeth Hogue of Baltimore, who spanned several octaves and most of the stage during her gospel medley.
The most emotional victory came when Timothy Soloman Lee accepted the honors for best male soloist. As he took the award, the Baltimore singer was engulfed on stage by several members of the audience, one of whom kept repeating "Praise the Lord" as she hugged him.
Gospel literally means "good news," and the good news for the winners was more than $11,000 in cash donations to the sponsoring churches from Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Winners also each received 25 hours of recording time at a New York City studio, plus 200 free albums for their churches.