Higher and Higher [1944]

Staged under the auspices of the BET Network, the 2007 edition of the "annual musical praise-fest" known as Celebration of Gospel: Taking You Higher! has all trappings of a big-time pop event: a fancy venue (the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles) with a tony crowd, slick production values (lights, sets, costumes, and so on), a big, powerful backing band… even an American Idol connection. But although you can take the music out of the church, you can't take the church out of the music, and this hour-long show, which brings together some of contemporary gospel's biggest names, is a joyous, inspired, and unrestrained display of worship and soul. Aside from the individuals involved (Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hampton, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Kelly Price, Tye Tribbett, and former Idol champ Fantasia are among them), what's perhaps most striking is the incredible energy level, both onstage and in the audience, from start (a fiery performance by Caesar and Adams, who comes on like a sanctified Tina Turner) to finish. While there are traditional elements in evidence, like Loretta Devine's straightforward delivery of "The Lord's Prayer," a certain pop/R&B sensibility permeates much of the music: Hampton tears it up with one of his patented "old skool jams," rapping and rocking through a number that evokes Luther Vandross and Earth, Wind & Fire; a quartet of older (and unidentified) ladies wail on what could easily pass for a lowdown, foot-stomping blues; and Fantasia, joined by three other young performers (Lil' Mo, Coko, and Kiki Sheard), indulges in the kind of vocal acrobatics heard every week on the world's most popular TV show. Yet there's something else going on here, a level of commitment reflected both in the constant Hallelujahs and the inimitable backbeat, alternately rocking and swinging, that takes gospel music both higher and deeper. The DVD includes a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and a couple of extra performances. --Sam Graham

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