Live review at Johnny Brenda's celebrates traditional gospel music

Carlton Lewis III, formerly of the Dixie Hummingbirds, will perform at the "Gospel, Soul & Rhythm-'n'-Blues Review."
Carlton Lewis III, formerly of the Dixie Hummingbirds, will perform at the "Gospel, Soul & Rhythm-'n'-Blues Review."
Posted: April 06, 2012

If the monthly Gospel Brunch at Johnny Brenda's is like a hipster church, then its minister is David April, a/k/a DJ DNA. April has hosted the brunch since Easter Sunday 2010; he's also hosted "Roots of Rhythm & Blues" and "The Gospel Train" for 20 years on Hatboro's WRDV-FM. To celebrate that anniversary, he'll preach musical truth Saturday with a live gospel show at the venue.

The "Gospel, Soul & Rhythm-'n'-Blues Review" will feature performances by the York Street Hustle, a Philadelphia-based, nine-piece ensemble that plays '60s soul; Philadelphia's gospel-based God's Grace, which typically performs at local churches; and Carlton Lewis III, a member of the famed gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds who has since embarked on a solo soul career.

This isn't your average Saturday-night concert, but April isn't your average DJ. While most white, male 46-year-olds are buying the new Springsteen album or jumping around on the Van Halen reunion tour, April prefers African-American gospel music from the '40s and '50s. Growing up in Virginia and Missouri, he listened to his father's big-band music. His sister exposed him to the popular black artists of the '60s and '70s, such as James Brown and Stevie Wonder. April's taste is more eclectic today, but he's glad he has a way to celebrate music and artists from 60 and 70 years ago.

"You don't hear gospel music much, and if you do, you'll hear contemporary choirs and contemporary-sounding gospel," April said. "So even within the gospel world, I'm kind of preserving a section of it that even some of the listeners aren't familiar with."

April's gospel and R&B shows run back-to-back so he can demonstrate how soul music originated and how gospel influenced R&B and other important genres such as funk, soul and rock 'n' roll.

"The gospel that I do on the radio show is more traditional - '40s and '50s, and it's all African-American," he said. "But I try and keep the soul in more of the traditional '40s, '50s and '60s realm."

Audiences at his monthly Gospel Brunch aren't always familiar with that music, so he plays what he sees as approachable, Gospel 101 material. He'll spin some bold-faced names that the people might recognize - Sam Cooke and his Soul Stirrers, and gospel legends like the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. Occasionally, April will have live groups like the local Guiding Lights Gospel Quartet.

"They're primarily a cappella, traditional-style quartets from Philly, and they'll come in and harmonize some four- or five-part gospel," April said.

It's a surprising mix: a gospel set at a bar typically known for its indie-rock shows, played from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to accompany the breakfast food (and, of course, drinks) offered by the venue just a few hours after its live shows ended. Said April: "Johnny Brenda's has always been very open to various types of music, and not just the alternative and the indie rock that they do, which is their bread and butter." n

"Gospel, Soul & Rhythm-'n'-Blues Review" with Carlton Lewis III and more, Johnny Brenda's, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 8: 30 p.m. Saturday, $15-$25. Gospel Brunch with DJ DNA, every second Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m., free. 215-739-9684, johnnybrendas.com.

Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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