The history of African American music is marked by tension between religious and secular styles, but any such strain was undetectable Tuesday night at Constitution Hall, where neo-gospel star Kirk Franklin headlined "Hopeville 2004." After a short film, the show opened with its entire cast cooing the Five Stairsteps' 1970 hit "O-o-h Child." The song is not exactly a church standard, but it does deliver one of gospel's longstanding messages: "Things are gonna get better."
The three-hour performance was basically a musical revue, with a few comic and theatrical interludes, played at the corner of Hopeville Avenue and Main Street. A set depicting several storefronts and a church provided a dispersed band shell, as well as many possible entryways for Franklin, fellow featured singers Donnie McClurkin and Yolanda Adams and as many as 16 backup vocalists. The muddy sound obscured some of the details of their songs, but the gist was clear: Jesus, family and forgiveness, with only the smallest possible serving of brimstone. As Franklin put it: "God is not keeping score."
Musically, the evening was rooted in '60s soul and '70s funk; McClurkin even worked a bit of Sly and the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" into a devotional number. There were a few nods to hip-hop, but the band's violinist played a much larger role than its DJ. McClurkin, a crooner, and Adams, a belter, both have bigger voices than does Franklin, who's also small in stature. But the headliner shined with energy and charisma, conducting the audience as surely as he did the band and singers.
Franklin may not be a traditional preacher, but he knows how to work a congregation.
-- Mark Jenkins