Chicago Gospel Music Festival Concludes with Impressive Performances and Impassioned Crowds
The passion, enthusiasm, and spiritual fervor of the Chicago Gospel Music Festival reached new heights on its second and final day, Saturday, June 3rd. Crowds rushed into the Pritzker Pavilion as soon as it opened, clamoring for a front-row view of some of gospel music’s brightest stars. Concert-goers maintained this energy throughout the evening, often rising from their seats to sing along and wave their hands in the air. Though the headliners encompassed a variety of sounds ranging from traditional gospel to contemporary Christian music, all performers shared the same goal of praising God. “I didn’t come here to entertain,” said headliner Natalie Grant. Like many of the festival's performers and concertgoers, she came instead to celebrate her unshakable faith.
It seemed that most of the crowd was similarly enthused by the music’s religious message, but not all. Some people, especially on the lawn and in the back of the seating area, had wandered into the park to find out more about the music. These curious bystanders hung over the walls above the seating area too, craning their necks to get a better look at the Pavilion’s enormous Jumbotron screen.
Program Coordinator Ivy Hall spoke with the Picture this Post Gospel Festival Editorial Team about staging the elaborate festival. She describes her job as overseeing the festival “start to finish,” managing logistical tasks like the budget, artist contracts, marketing, and curating the festival’s lineup. To determine who performs, Hall examines factors like commercial success and whether artists are working on upcoming projects. Despite these large responsibilities, Hall said that her biggest obstacle to staging a successful festival is “the weather,” describing the potentially devastating impact of rain on the festival’s smooth operation. Regardless of climate, however, the festival continues “rain or shine.”
Festival’s Acts Showcase Diverse Sounds and Singular Message
Saturday night’s performances at the Pritzker Pavilion began with a set from VaShawn Mitchell. The singer, songwriter and producer first attained commercial success with his 2010 single “Nobody Greater” and released his most recent album, Secret Place, in 2016. Mitchell carries himself with the energy and confidence of a true crossover star, striding across the stage in a bright pink bomber jacket, acid wash jeans, and high-top sneakers. Though Mitchell took center stage, he frequently passed the mic to some of the nine backup singers supporting him. Mitchell looked on with pride, admiration, and intense focus as they traded solos over rock and soul-infused musical backdrops.
Next up was Koryn Hawthorne, a 19-year-old artist who gained attention as a finalist on the 2015 season of The Voice. Hawthorne took the stage alone, accompanied by pre-recorded backing tracks instead of backup singers and a live band. In her short set of two songs, Hawthorne commanded the stage entirely by herself.
The Rance Allen Group, a gospel band active since the 1970s, pulled off one of most musically impressive and spiritually stirring sets of the entire festival. The 68-year-old Allen was greeted with raucous applause as he swaggered onto the stage in sunglasses, a grey double-breasted suit and bright red shoes. With a shock of white hair and a megawatt smile, Allen oozed charisma. An ordained Bishop of the Church of God in Christ, Allen’s rich tone and stunning range stirred the audience into a frenzy, especially during their signature song “Something About the Name Jesus,” where Allen showcased both his booming baritone and piercing falsetto in a matter of seconds. The crowd roared as Allen meandered off stage, letting his backup singers finish the song.
One audience member who had never before been to a gospel concert claimed that her only intention in coming to the festival was to “praise God.” It seemed that, for much of the audience, the actual sound of Christian music takes a backseat to its religious content. Perhaps this explains the stylistic shift from the Rance Allen Group to contemporary Christian music superstar Natalie Grant, whose set traded the warm tones of gospel for jagged, anthemic alternative rock. Projecting phrases like “King of the World” and “Lord Almighty” on an imposing screen behind her, Grant’s set was more explicitly Evangelical than any other at the two-day gospel festival.
The next set brought a number of gospel musicians onstage to honor Jessy Dixon, an ordained minister, gospel musician, and Chicagoan who passed away in 2011. Dixon was discovered by the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, a musician whose fusion of traditional gospel, soul, and pop earned him the moniker “King of Gospel.” This style laid the foundation for contemporary gospel and was heard not only during the Jessy Dixon tribute and the following set by Tye Tribbett but during the entire festival.
Was the 32nd Annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival successful? Three women who we talked to on Saturday – Gloria Rivers, Phyllis Ross and Francellia Bandy – certainly thought so. Phyllis Ross summarized the feelings of many concertgoers, saying that “gospel music is inspiring. It gives us hope. It gives us peace.”
You can read our day one coverage of the festival here.
MORE: read other profiles of gospel performers, including Glenn Johnson and the Voices of Innerpeace, God's Posse, The University of Illinois Black Chorus, Isaiah Freeman, R&R, Neicy Robertson, and the Selah St. Sabina Youth Choir.
Photos: Peter Kachergis