Durham gets a new gospel festival | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Durham gets a new gospel festival 

Onstage in Chicago in 1998, gospel singer Fred Hammond proclaimed, "It's time to kick some Devil butt." More than 15 years later, Hammond is no less fervent; this weekend, count on some righteous kicks aimed at Satan's posterior during the two-day Gospel Xtravaganza at N.C. Central's football stadium.

It's the event's first year, but promoter Tonya Sampson of Step Entertainment says she hopes it becomes an annual Durham tradition. Gospel concerts, she explains, "usually happen in churches, but there's nothing outside the churches for the public."

So Step Entertainment partnered with Radio One to gather more than 20 performers—ranging from nationally known names such as Hammond, Deitrick Haddon, Yolanda Adams and Marvin Sapp to gospel reality show finalist Danetra Moore, Raleigh's The Christian Angels and Aberdeen singer Ruth La'Ontrato lift up their voices. Not a believer? Never fear: While those celebrating their faith should form much of the audience, the musical chops will appeal to the most secular of humanists, too.

Sapp and James Fortune headline Friday night. Sapp suggested crossover appeal when his 2007 hit "Never Would Have Made It" dominated not only the gospel charts but also broke the top 20 of the R&B charts and the top 100 of Billboard's pop chart. A subsequent album, Here I Am, even debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. That wide appeal comes when Sapp adds a bit of grit to his Vandross-esque soul. He sometimes slips into homogenized praise songs, but his career has enough gems that you shouldn't expect such a lull to last long onstage.

Fortune and his backing group, FIYA, weave through pop, urban and praise music. At times, he stops being a singer and evolves into a sort of spiritual hype man, a preacher talking his way through songs while FIYA delivers feathery vocals.

When Hammond hits the stage Saturday, expect church to commence a day early. Some of his early work with Radical for Christ had a sound that would nestle nicely inside a Frankie Beverly and Maze set list. More recent work, such as "Never A Day" from his United Tenors album, slides into the smooth jazz realm. Whatever style he's working, his passion is supreme.

He shares the top of Saturday's bill with Haddon, found these days on the Oxygen channel's reality series Preachers of L.A. His music is wonderfully chameleonic: "Well Done" boasts echoes of "Purple Rain," while "Touch Me" begins with a call for an "old-school beat" before leaping into a jam suited for The Spinners. His "Have It Your Way" sits in the lineage of plaintive R&B tunes that can preach the gospel or proffer romance with only minor pronoun tweaks. Those moves give the songs a relatable familiarity, gospel bait for the taking.

"A lot of these people have only made appearances here and haven't been here before for a full concert," Sampson says. "I just pray that everything goes as planned."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The word."


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