The members of Sounds of Blackness are well known for getting their spiritual groove on with a mix of bluesy rhythms, funky dance steps and body-hugging wardrobes that dare traditional church folks to get mad.
But on Sunday the Washington Performing Arts Society presented the Grammy-winning group in a tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that was a soul-stirring musical journey that began in Africa, rolled through a segregated South and parked in the home town of the artist formerly known as Prince.
With a little help from Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and artists who were part of Prince's Revolution, the Sounds of Blackness have gone from the obscure choir stands of Minneapolis to main street in the recording industry with an up-tempo jazzy sound and eye-popping moves that have won them fans around the world.
A scaled-down version of the 30-member group began its concert Sunday with echoes of Africa, along with spirituals performed in crisp a cappella that was punctuated with slide images and the words of King.
The ensemble had to work hard to get the I-just-came-from-church crowd out of their $45 seats down front. Ironically, it was the lead guitarist who landed a standing ovation with a Jimi Hendrix-style instrumental version of "We Shall Overcome."
Then the pilot light in the old theater was lit, passions peaked and a soloist singing King's favorite song, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," moved people to shout and shake their heads.
"That particular song is filled with so much emotion," said soloist Andrea Tribitt, 29, who performed in honor of her hero. "Martin Luther King was a powerful force but he was humble because he was big enough to be little."
For music director Gary Hines, the concert was a perfect venue to showcase yesterday and tomorrow.
Sounds of Blackness were performing a "Tribute to Martin" onstage when they were discovered by Jam and Lewis. Now, the group's latest release is titled "Reconciliation"--a sweet-sounding plea for people to get along.