05 April 2007

Soweto Gospel Choir (concert review)

Is tight choreography at odds with spontaneity? That's the question my companion and I found ourselves discussing at the intermission of the Soweto Gospel Choir's appearance this week in Tacoma, WA.Soweto Gospel Choir - courtesy of the band

Sure, we were wowed by the sheer power of the vocals, the colorful costumes, and the tight choreography (including the seamless transitions between songs). But there seemed to be something missing. A looseness and spontaneity we are used to seeing with performers of global roots music. So the question arose: Is this quality possible to achieve with dozens of performers? (Or maybe they're just tired from two days of shows in Seattle? Or maybe they're not getting enough energy from the audience?)

The second act turned out to be conclusive than our conversation beneath the Pantages Theater's ornate ceiling. After a short, odd, out-of-place African dance number, the choir returned in strength for a rousing second half displaying more individual energy and style in both dance and singing. The group included magical re-interpretations of the gospel standards "Amazing Grace" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" (shortened to "Swing Down"). Even the hackneyed campfire song "Khumbaya" was given interesting new life in their version. The group's several medleys also included bits of Bob Marley's "One Love" and Peter Gabriel's "Biko," which never fails to send chills down my spine.
Soweto Gospel Choir - African Spirit
If there was a disappointment besides the first half's lack of spark, it was the inarticulate rendering of the classic "Weeping." Singer Shimmy Jiyane shone elsewhere in the show, but on this song his clarity faltered and those unfamiliar with the song were left in head-scratching puzzlement about the ballad's relevance to a gospel choir. I'll take Vusi's version any day.

Soweto Gospel Choir's tour in support of their recent album African Spirit continues April 23, with shows in California, Louisiana, and Texas. Despite a few flaws, it's a show well worth catching for an invigorating blast of South African energy.

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