Very few things remain sacrosanct anymore. “Your momma” jokes still piss people off, because Mom is one of those places you just don’t go. The same could be said for gospel. It’s one of the rare types of music that unites holy-rollers and nonbelievers in hand-clapping, hip-swaying, hanky-shaking joy. So House of Blues struck gold by pairing momma with gospel and sweetening the deal with a sumptuous spread of soul food.
With help from multi-platinum gospel, hip-hop, pop and R&B artist Kirk Franklin, Mother’s Day marked the worldwide launch of the venue’s revamped Gospel Brunch. And a couple of hours there made everyone wish they had a white robe at home to go with their shiny new singing voices. The event’s tagline, “Sunday mornings just got fresh,” references Franklin’s hip-hop roots as Kid Fresh, though it could apply to the food as much as the entertainment.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the House of Blues threw open its doors to an anxious mix of mothers and their friends and families. As we walked downstairs into the music venue usually crowded with leather-jacketed whiskey drinkers, a trio of women singing a soulful tune greeted us. Moms were presented with red roses by the hostess and seated at long, picnic-style tables with rows of chairs en masse. The event already had a down-home feeling, and the delicious simplicity of the spread only underscored that. Rivaling the quality of any Strip buffet, the brunch featured a wonderful variety of shrimp, fried chicken and waffles, ribs, sausage, biscuits, mac and cheese, potatoes and omelets, along with a dessert bar. No one even considered dieting.
After our appetites were fed, Franklin’s promise to feed our souls gave way to the Nu Vision Ensemble, featuring keys, bass, drums, four backup singers and an MC—all splendidly decked out in long, white robes with gold trim. Leading the charge was the spectacular Sharon Smith, whose singing voice shook the crowd. Waving to her mother, who sat in the audience smiling proudly, Smith explained, “You’re in ‘chaarch,’ not church. You need to kick off your shoes, and maybe even loosen up that wig a little.” Between the laughter that followed and her “cuttin’ a step for Jesus” as she sashayed across the stage, even the holdouts began to move into the aisles, clap a little harder and sway their hips in time to the drums.
Musical numbers included everything from hits like “Oh Happy Day” to contemporary Franklin tunes like the infectious “I Smile” and “Why We Sing.” And whenever it felt like there might be a lull, beautiful MC Sylvia St. James brought members of the audience onstage to dance and sing in celebration of their birthdays, anniversaries and anything else she thought worth celebrating.
The feel-good atmosphere actually had more behind it than good food and good music. A portion of the proceeds from each Gospel Brunch goes to the International House of Blues Foundation, which teaches children about music and its history while they learn how to play everything from electric guitars to indigenous instruments. Franklin’s motivation for getting involved grew out of his own impoverished upbringing, when he found inspiration in the gospel of Halie Jackson and Thomas Dorsey. He knows what music can do for a kid. Based on all the dancing in the aisles at Sunday’s brunch, I’d say music does good things for grown-ups, too.