Nicola and I saw Kirk Franklin in concert at the Beacon Theater on 7/28/19. I hadn't heard of him before she introduced me to him a few years ago - - he's a gospel artist she really loves. I got a few CDs of his from the Public Library and was impressed. She spoke effusively about a concert of his she went to a few years ago so I started stalking the internet for his next concert in New York. I bought us two tickets as soon as I saw that a date was announced.
I love a performance that starts off with a buzz of excitement and anticipation, that really sends me. The comic who started the show was funny but not particularly satisfying. The opening artist, Koryn Hawthorne, was another story, she was amazing. She has a powerful, raspy voice, she really delivers the goods. Her song "Unstoppable" is currently #5 on the Billboard gospel chart:
They took a little time to reset the stage and then Franklin himself came out. Just him alone on the stage. He talked with the audience about his process in figuring out how to start the show. "I thought maybe I'd do..." and a recording of one of his songs came over the loudspeaker, driving the audience insane. "Or maybe I'd do something newer, like..." Another song, and again, insanity. "Or would it be better to go way back?" Another song, further insanity. He did this five or six times, he was such a tease.
His band came out and they did their first rousing song. Franklin himself rarely sings (he's frank about the limitations of his singing), he spent the show either talking to the audience, preaching, playing the piano, or dancing. His dancing in this first song was totally old school James Brown. He's a sexy man and a dazzling dancer, so that was a great way to open.
He had six singers, four women and two men. I was surprised that they almost always sang as a unit, it was rare that one of them had a solo. They were fabulous singers, their blend was impeccable, their style was honed down to a T. I'd describe the singing by the audience that same way! It appeared that I was the only person who didn't know every word of every one of his songs. Maybe this was just a comic bit that he does, but Franklin seemed genuinely impressed and surprised that the audience not only knew his songs so well, but sang them in fabulous three-part harmony!
At one point I had to use the bathroom and I nudged Nicola to ask her to let me out. She was in another place, she was unaware that I had nudged her. I waited until a break in between songs, and she was able to be roused. I was thrilled that I made it back from the bathroom in time for them to hear them do "Silver and Gold," my favorite of his songs:
My new favorite is "Don't Take Your Joy Away." Oh yes, what a gorgeous song.
They did a couple of old school hymns, including "Blessed Assurance:" "This is my story, this is my song / Praising my Savior, all the day long." It was intense, it was a beautiful way to give direct tribute to the ancestors.
Maybe I should mention at this point that I'm rather agnostic when it comes to my faith. I grew up going to church every Sunday, sang in the choir, and I see my hometown church as an essential part of my mother's life, they're is a priceless community for her. But my personal beliefs are more ambiguous, I'd describe myself as "spiritual" rather than "religious." I definitely wouldn't describe myself as a Christian, though that is my background and my sort of default setting.
I'm going to tell a story about a friend in Concert Choir back in the 90s. I have a feeling that I've made this story up or embroidered on a somewhat blank canvas, but the story itself is worth telling, apart from this veracity (or lack thereof!). We were on tour and my friend, who is a devout Christian, had a moment to talk with our conductor, the great Robert Fountain. She asked him about his beliefs and he said he's not a religious man at all. She told him she was surprised by that, because he conducts Bach with such deep feeling. He said, "I believe in Bach's belief." I had a variation of that at the Kirk Franklin concert, I was blown away by the depth, the power, and the POSITIVE spirit of the people around me. What a joy to be surrounded by that for a few hours.
The highlight of the whole experience (and it was indeed an experience rather than a concert) was the passing of the peace. It was a little shocking and rather extraordinary for this Scandinavian boy from rural Wisconsin to receive hugs and blessings from numerous African American strangers. I won't forget that anytime soon.
Franklin is a perfect expression of the divamensch: he's a diva in the sense that he revels in his talent, is eager to share it, and has no problem being the center of attention. Plus his dancing, piano playing, and preaching are full of wonderful diva attitude. But he's a mensch because four or five times, after a particularly overpowering audience reaction, he would gesture to himself, shake his head, and point up, as a way of saying "to God be the glory."