In the tobacco fields and fairgrounds of Charles County on Saturday, a vintage collection of gospel artists proved that one doesn't need the acoustics of a church sanctuary to serve sweet sounds in the name of Jesus.
Thousands of devoted fans ignored fickle weather and brought coolers and laid blankets at two different venues where gospel and inspirational artists rolled in with a storm of music that went unabated for 12 hours.
At the Charles County Fairgrounds, the performance of many local gospel groups served as a sweet-sounding backdrop for families having picnics, enjoying carnival attractions and watching toddlers take their first pony rides. But then Vickie Winans vaulted onto the stage.
"How many people feel like praising the Lord!" Winans screamed. "The Bible says that everything that hath breath praises the Lord!"
And Lord, Vickie hath breath. For 45 minutes, she drained about 4,000 people of their emotions. First she joked about gaining weight. "God is good, fat is good, it's all good." Next, she cried about getting divorced from her Grammy Award-winning husband, Marvin Winans. "When I looked, the Devil was in my home." Then, as people wept, she slipped into an old hymn entitled "More About Jesus."
Before Winans was finished, the ponies had been shipped off, the carnival rides had ceased and nothing was left but serious gospel. Winans threw her head back and launched into her most recent hit, "Already Been to the Water," a fast-moving, body-shaking tune that should have come with a warning label.
And as for occupational hazards, no one told Dorothy Norwood, Tommy Ellison & Singing Sons, or the Gospel Keynotes that dancing, jumping and sliding around onstage is not usual behavior for gospel artists now eligible for Social Security.
Before Shirley Caesar concluded the 12-hour show with a mix of sacred music and storytelling, Paul Beasley of the Gospel Keynotes used his falsetto to whip the crowd into a frenzy with "Walk Around Heaven All Day."
But these legendary groups really had to work not to be upstaged by the Singing Disciples, a Baltimore group that easily could have a national following with a little more help from its record label.
At the other venue, Serenity Farm in Benedict, CeCe Winans, Michael English and the Canton Spirituals proved that gospel and contemporary artists could break down racial barriers and glean new fans.
Maybe it was the name: Serenity Farm. But only a few of the 400 people left their lawn chairs during the concert, even though the Sensational Nightingales, the Swanee Quintet and the Canton Spirituals provided enough foot-stomping music to stir up the farm animals.
At one point, the Full Gospel Assembly choir made the concert feel like a church service and perhaps that was good. But then Grammy-winning artists Michael English and CeCe Winans popped onstage, the lighting and sound technicians went to work, and a few Christians forsook their hymnals, jumped up and got their spiritual grooves on.
CAPTION: Kenny Davis, right, of Kenny Davis and the Melodyaires, dances with two concertgoers at the Gospel Festival.
CAPTION: Firing up the crowd: Kenndy Davis, right, of the band Kenndy Davis and the Melodyaires, dances with two concertgoers at the Gospel Festival on Saturday.
CAPTION: A Joyful Noise Unto the Lord: Vickie Winans, singing praises at the Gospel Festival in Charles County.