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The House That Soul Built

An afternoon of raw gospel singing, storytelling, and testifying. 

‘Gospel, blues, soul, and a slice of pizza’, announced CrazySexyCoool Entertainment founder Ovie, introducing the afternoon’s performance. Drawn from Ovie’s passion for live music, the Gospel Blues Series takes place on particular Sunday afternoons at Pizza Express High Holborn, London – a joint which can offer just as formidable a show as some of London’s more iconic and established venues.

The Gospel Blues Series features musical director and pianist Jason Thompson, and gospel veteran Daniel Thomas – former director of the London Community Gospel Choir (LCGC) and esteemed vocal coach. At each iteration, Thomas shares vocals with guest singers. At yesterday’s performance, Thomas was joined by Samantha-Antoinette Smith and Sharleen Linton – two vocalists with considerable industry experience. The three vocalists danced their way onto the stage, infusing religious fervour into Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ – setting the tone for the show.

As a host, Thomas brings irrepressible humour and sass – at one point decrying the ‘North Canadian breeze’ emanating from the venue’s air-conditioning. But he also brings spit and sawdust gospel chops, with earthquake-inducing vibrato. His creative pedigree was evident through remixed jazz versions of George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ (cleverly mashed up with the lullaby, ‘Hush Little Baby’) and Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’. On a shared performance of Mary Mary’s ‘Shackles’, he squalled with utter abandon, backed by Kenny Barry’s distorted guitar.

Samantha-Antoinette Smith interpreted the most searing songs of the evening, beginning with ‘Go Moses Down’ – a Negro Spiritual in which the bondage of the Israelites in Exodus operates as a metaphor for the oppression of the African-American slave. In the second act, she performed another spiritual, ‘Trouble Of This World’, popularised by gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. Gifted with a bottomless gospel voice, Smith tapped into these harrowing narratives with breathtaking command and control – harnessing each facet of her voice, from the dark, low range to her piercing, throaty howl. She also showcased playful dynamics on Billie Holliday’s ‘God Bless The Child’, throwing repeated vocal punches at the climax before closing with a well-placed soft touch.

The smooth-toned Sharleen Linton approached Sam Cooke’s seminal ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ – a civil rights anthem that typified the African-American struggle – with respect for the beautiful storytelling, while adding tasteful jazz and melismatic flourishes. She also performed ‘So Amazing’ (Luther Vandross) with Thomas, a slice of adult contemporary R&B in which their voices blended nicely.

While praising the lord aplenty (‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Oh Happy Day’), the trio promised from the start to take us through the secret passageway from the church lavatory into the dirty blues bar. Indeed, though initially pitted against each other – the sacred versus the satanic – the histories and cultures of gospel and blues are deeply intertwined. David Ritz even explains in Respect, his (unauthorised) biography of the late Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, how the gospel circuit of the 1950s was characterised by the worldly pleasures and vices for which the blues circuit was condemned. Namely, promiscuous sex and alcohol. This detour into the blues club culminated in a performance of ‘Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On’. Could the trio have gone naughtier? Perhaps. But it was only a Sunday afternoon.

As a final point, the camaraderie of the three vocalists was endearing. Watching solo performances from the side of the stage, the idle vocalists hollered and cheered on their colleagues. ‘Sing!’

Read the full review here