I Got it So Good - Gospel Music in New York
Summer’s come and gone and with it outdoor concerts in the city.
Summerstage in Central Park and Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park are the season’s marquee events.
Less well known is the Martin Luther King Concert Series, held on Monday nights every summer for the last 30 years at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, near the end of the 2 train in Flatbush.
Though these concerts are the product of the same city government, they take place in almost an alternate reality.
I heard about them in an unlikely way. Before budget cuts, the New York Philharmonic performed one night every July in Prospect Park. Like any event in Brooklyn with more than 50 people in attendance, Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz appeared on stage, sounding off one-liners in his Sheepshead Bay accent.
“Last night’s concert in Central Park was a warm up for tonight’s show in Brooklyn.”
Markowitz went on to mention the various musical events taking place throughout the borough. The Celebrate Brooklyn concerts at the Prospect Park Bandshell gravitate towards indie rock and world music for the soy milk drinking set; the Coney Island dates showcase Doo Wop and vocal harmony groups of bygone Brooklyn; and the Martin Luther King Concert Series.
I dig Doo Wop, but the MLK concerts are what caught my attention. When I saw the annual gospel night in the lineup on the ‘90’s-vintage website, I was there.
On a Monday night.
The concert is a simple production, nothing more than a stage set on the infield of an outdoor track. The only items for sale are sold at neighborhood houses on Winthrop Street on the way to the subway; bootleg gospel compilations, bottled water, Jamaican patties.
Long lines are common; a maze of barricades snakes back and forth like an airport check-in on Thanksgiving eve, as everyone gets patted down prior to entry. At a gospel concert this is an extreme measure, but the routine here whatever the crowd.
I slip in 10 minutes after the music has started but well after the lines are gone. I hover near the back; I never really know what to do with myself when I attend concerts alone. Many of my musical tastes aren't shared by my friends, so I often see music solo.
I trickle in back, and position myself next to a guy in dreadlocks who has a spot staked out next to a garbage can.
I stand with my arms crossed, nodding my head to the music.
Though Rock & Roll originated from country music and gospel influenced rhythm & blues, there are few remnants of either style in rock today.
Gospel music has its own festivals, Billboard chart, and Grammy category, but has limited crossover appeal, and with the added specter of religion, gospel music is on the fringe of the mainstream music world.
For the early generation of Rock stars though, the church was their farm team.
Tonight’s opening act, Ricky Dillard, hails from Chicago. He began directing the youth choir at his church at the age of five and now leads a group that blends dance music with a choral delivery.
The headliners, Mary Mary, are two sisters from Los Angeles. Their parents were gospel singers and they followed, breaking into the music business as R&B backup singers, and then recording their own material. They’re said to be one of the top gospel acts going.
Spotify lists Jennifer Hudson, En Vogue, and Carrie Underwood as similar artists. With equal parts autotune, scratching, vocal duets, and Jesus name checks, this seems fitting.
Recently an article appeared in the New York Times about a preacher who promotes the gospel of wealth in his sermons throughout the country. The article profiled a man in Norfolk, Virginia who is once big in real estate and then crashes with the rest of the economy. He gives the last of his money, a $60 offering, to the preacher, a man who flaunts a lavish life of furs, private planes, and a 20,000 sq. foot house.
The man described the moment he let the envelope go as ‘an explosion,’ when all the guilt and shame he had been carrying melted away. He vowed to stay debt-free and ‘to owe no man nothing but love.’
$60 was all he had to his name.
My first reaction: you fool. This too was the tone of the article that asked the educated reader to mock the stupidity of the gullible masses.
Then, I came to another conclusion.
What does a $60 offering buy you in drinks from a bar tender? How many minutes on a shrink’s sofa do you get for $60? Do patients feel an explosion leaving a psychiatrists office? A bar?
Gospel music makes moments like these happen; and tonight’s show is free. No donations accepted.
Though I don’t often listen to lyrics, gospel is the exception. The message often preaches happiness in being grateful for what you’ve got.
A favorite from the Jackson Southernaires: “I once complained that I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet to use.”
Though I am the only person of my color in sight, gospel concerts always make me feel welcomed. The performers are fond of asking you to turn to your neighbor, grab their hand, and make declarations. During Ricky Dillard’s set it is: “I got it so good.”
The girl standing next to me takes my hand and starts it off. I repeat the proclamation. “I got it so good.”
She’s a small-featured college-aged girl with short hair, and she holds my hand with conviction now as the tempo accelerates to a rave up. Her friend takes my other hand; one on each side of me, and we twirl around as a unit. Then, the leader takes over and it is just the two of us spinning around and around, faster and faster, getting more manic with the music.
For that brief minute, we are the spectacle of the show.
I would like to think I held my rhythm until the music ends and I am full of dizzy energy. I must do all right though because I get a high-five from the dreadlock dude by the garbage can.
When the song ends and Rick Dillard signs off the stage, I stop to catch my breath and find out more about the girl who takes me for a spin.
Ingrid is from Grenada as is her friend Tammi. She asks me where I go to church, and invites me to the New Directions Church on 94th and Winthrop where she attends. Services are held on Saturdays as is the tradition for Seventh Day Adventists. The pastor is Jamaican and real friendly, she says. I inquire about the congregation—they are mostly from the Islands too.
The program is the same every year I’ve attended. After the first group get off the stage the break between performers is filled with various announcements and advertisements, with Marty Markowitz as MC.
This year, the Honorary Vice General of Austria makes an appearance to promote his country; the City Council member representing the district plays to the crowd with religious references in his political appeal to the audience.
Markowitz then introduces Zane Tankel, the short, bald owner of the many Applebee’s franchises in New York City and the yearly sponsor of the concert series. In his nasally senior citizen delivery he appears more out of place then even me, but he is clearly right at home in this crowd.
Behind Zane stands of chorus line of waitresses outfitted in tank tops and hot shorts like Hooters Girls. Each takes a turn at the mike to sound off their specials.
Toya from the downtown Brooklyn location offers curbside delivery right to your car.
Tiana from the Bed–Stuy branch tells us the special on Saturday is sangria for the ladies. For the fellas, she says, there’s Henessey.
As we wait for Mary Mary the Applebee’s girls are a good diversion and a yearly highlight for me.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to do much dancing that night. Rain is threatening all evening and with the first few drops Markowitz cancels the concert, apologizing profusely for having to call it a night.
As everyone heads to the exit a middle-aged woman in the crowd mentions Curtis Mayfield to no one in particular. Mayfield was paralyzed here in 1990 after lighting equipment fell on him during a windstorm.
And then I met a man who had no feet to use.
I got it so good.