A perfect storm brews every week within the interior of BB Kings main room. It’s where the singers of the Harlem Gospel Choir, with unmatched passion, prowess and joy bring the vocal thunder. They give a truly stunning, uplifting show that stands as a testament to why HGC is loved and performs the world over from Norway to New York City. Merging exceptional talent with exceptional heart, it’s difficult to imagine a more exciting hour and a half you can enjoy legally with multiple people in public.
The opening act isn’t a band; it’s the Southern buffet brunch. An expanse of stainless steel trays gleaming with grits, scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, cinnamon brown sugar French toast, macaroni and cheese, cornmeal-crusted catfish and other fare stretches from the front of the club’s long bar down the small flight of steps leading down to the area in front of the stage, as did the line of hungry people. Bellies full, the crowd and I settled in for an afternoon of soul-transporting entertainment and wow did we get it.
Seven choir members clad in golden sashes and vests and backed by a dynamic and talented band came on and took over. “We’re gonna keep this train rollin’!” was the choir’s rallying cry, and when they broke into a soaring and upbeat “Oh, Happy Day,” it brought the room to its collective feet. Spectators became supporting performers clapping and stepping from side to side in Motownesque rhythm with the choir when the singers invited them onstage to join them in the revelry. It was wonderful to see the security guard at his post by the door dance to the music with the same unrestrained enjoyment as those he’d shown to their tables to see the performance.
There’s nothing like a concert in Manhattan to unite the world under one roof. Audience members hailed from Australia to New Mexico to North Carolina to California to Queens, NY. My tablemates were from New Brunswick, Canada, Orlando, Florida, and Japan.
A solo performance of the ballad “Available To You” as expressed by Sister Tiana’s bright, rich, earthy soprano revealed a quality of being channeled through. In every vocalist, it seemed that not only were they singing the songs, but also the songs were singing them. The choir’s interaction with the audience was playful and plentiful.
“Who here is a friend of God?” called out choir member Sister Nicki. When answered with a minimal show of hands given the size of the crowd, she laughingly repeated the question. This time, nearly every hand in attendance shot up in response. Birthday inquiries were also made and celebrated.
One singer was unflinchingly candid about painful events and crushing losses in her life that had ultimately brought her closer to her faith and fueled her desire to reach out to others through song. The intimacy of the confidence was a perfect fit with the BB Kings cozy space.
I felt as if I had been aurally air-dropped into the unforgettable gospel church service scene in the Blue Brothers movie with James Brown playing an evangelical preacher as one of the male vocalists ecstatically sang “Joy (What He’s Done For Me),” stomping and dancing with high-octane energy as his resonating emotion-soaked tenor walloped and rang the air.
Songs of worship made a thrilling seamless transition into 70s R&B soul and funk at the close of the show. Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” and the refrain “get on up” from James Brown’s song “Sex Machine” electrified the room, fusing the holy with the sexy, making you know they’re one and the same and parallel each other in intensity.
As the choir came down stage steps still singing, I was disappointed that an encore didn’t seem to be in store until they paused in front near the entrance to the room and continued performing and exulting jubilantly even as those who came to see them began preparing to hit the sidewalk.
What a way to get religion.
BB King Blues Club and Grill
Sunday Gospel Brunch
237 West 42nd Street
Doors open at 12:30 p.m., show begins at 1:30 p.m.