Metropolitan Community Church of Washington (MCC-D.C.) pulled out all the stops for its Christmas concert this year but even with another diva in the house — guest singer Oleta Adams — it was still Shirli Hughes’ night, as it should have been.
Hughes, the church’s minister of music (and a lesbian), has resigned and Saturday night’s concert was her swan song after a decade running the church’s music program. It felt as though she decided to go out with a bang — the concert was held at the Lincoln Theater (usually all MCC concerts are held at the church) and there were two big guests: Adams and a healthy fraction of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington which has its own holiday show the weekend of the 16th (go here for details).
That Adams sang beautifully was almost a given. She owned the stage during a three-song mini-set late in the second half during which she accompanied herself on electric piano with her hit “Get Here” and an exquisite cover of Amy Grant’s “Mary’s Song (Breath of Heaven)” that’s also on Adams’ Christmas album. Initially I thought she sounded too muscular for the tender lullaby but she settled into a moving rendition of the song marked by dead-on phrasing and vocal nuance.
And, of course, I know rehearsal time is often either highly limited or non-existent when you bring in a big-name artist, but it was almost tragic to hear the canned backing vocals on her opening number “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” considering the bounty of choral talent that was sitting back stage. Thankfully she joined them on closing song “Joy to the World” (mostly the Three Dog Night version but not entirely), which gave the concert a less compartmentalized feel among its participants which, prior to that, had been totally insular (the MCC choir didn’t sing a note with the GMCW; they’re much different outfits, of course, but some sort of collaboration would have been refreshing).
The concert, playing to a packed house, was designed to give the church a chance to show off its abundance of talent. Several soloists — especially Marcia Newbill, Gbenimah Slopadoe, Jeffrey Herrell and Yartumo Gborkorquellie — have pro-caliber voices and could be on Broadway or in Los Angeles recording studios if they wished. Equally good, Natalie Carter’s warm, silky solo on “My Sweet Lawd” was understated yet powerful. And old MCC standbys Lisa Carrol, Tanya Harper and Michelle Lanchester (Hughes’ partner) were each in fine voice. Carrol, who possesses a lovely alto timbre, has excelled under Hughes’ guidance and has found new range in her interpretive abilities. And Lanchester, a soul growler who can ad lib with all the passion and fire of any big-name gospel act, sounded better than ever last night. She has, at times, been hampered by muddy acoustics and ill-tempered mics in the MCC sanctuary but last night the balance was perfect. There were some howling mics here and there, sadly, but they were mostly worked out by the time she came on.
Hughes opened the second half with two solos — “Ave Maria” and “O Holy Night,” both of which she’s performed previously at the church. The latter, especially, was lovely and allowed her to show off her interpretive finesse and range to their fullest. They also exemplified, by contrast, what makes Hughes such a rare talent — she can kick back and throw down with the most sanctifying gospel grooves but on her solo selections she proves she’s got great classical sensibilities as well and is undeniably a trained singer. It’s quite rare to find a musician, whether he or she is singing or directing (or accompanying as Hughes also does), who can pull off both extremes so successfully. Though mercurial at times — and she would likely admit to that — she leaves enormous shoes for the church to fill. Music can totally make or break a worship service.
The Gay Men’s Chorus sounded lovely as usual — their harmonies, tighter and more refined (but also more staid) than MCC’s — are undeniably great. Their overall pitch is as precise as a tuning fork. They continue to excel under Jeff Burhman’s sturdy leadership.
There was only one misstep of the evening but unfortunately, in my estimation anyway, it was a huge one — a medley of Hanukkah songs the GMCW closed its mini-set with. While musically they provided the show with a nice change of pace, thematically it was jarring and completely out of place. I’m all for diversity and respect of other faiths especially during the holidays, but MCC is a Christian church and this was a Christmas concert. A few secular songs that were included — a slightly wobbly “Christmas Song” by the church’s string ensemble and a medley of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Merry Christmas Darling” by the GMCW — were fine. And I’m not of the mindset, as are many Christians, that everything performed during a church program has to be explicitly religion in text. Yes, Jesus Christ was Jewish himself, but to include a selection of material that rejects the divinity of Christ at a Christian Christmas concert was offensive. I was probably in the minority on this point though — the number was as heartily applauded as any of the night. It’s a shame, though, as the GMCW has several gorgeous sacred Christmas numbers in its repertoire — much more appropriate would have been selections like the Bass “Gloria,” or the Mendelssohn “Say Where He is Born” or “There Shall a Star” they performed at their own concert last year.
But that’s quibbling — overall, it was a great, great night. Kudos to Adams for graciously singing autographs and posing for photos after the show.
I’ve been meaning to blog, too, about two other concerts I caught in recent weeks that are both of considerable queer appeal. Chaka Khan played a tight half jazz/half pop/funk concert during a two-night run at the Birchmere last week. I caught the first show Monday night. And bi bassist Meshell Ndegeocello was also at the Birchmere a couple weeks before (on Nov. 15) for her “Weather Tour,” supporting her brand new album. I interviewed both of them (here and here) prior to their appearances.
Khan’s was far tighter and more generous. Playing an hour-and-45-minute set, she opened with standards like “I’ll Be Around,” “To Sir With Love” and “My Funny Valentine” before putting her own stamp on a four-song set of Joni Mitchell covers, only one of which (“Ladies Man”) she’s recorded herself. The standouts were the moody — it’s perhaps the darkest song in Mitchell’s entire canon — “Two Grey Rooms” and a highly unusual take on “Man From Mars” that gave her kick-ass band time to solo and jam. You wouldn’t think they’d pick that kind of a song on which to solo — Mitchell’s version is slow and atmospheric — but somehow it worked.
Khan closed her show with several hits — “Everlasting Love,” “Tell Me Something Good” and “What Cha Gonna Do 4 Me” (but not “I’m Every Woman”). She gamely sang an a cappella verse and chorus of “Fool’s Paradise” at a request, and gave her testimony of getting clean during an emotional reading of “Through the Fire.” She was in dazzlingly fine voice — her extraordinary pipes are as bright and strong as they’ve ever sounded. Her voice is a feat of nature — she could blow Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Gladys Knight away with a sneeze and I’m not exaggerating.
Meshell, conversely, is almost an anti-singer, an anti-entertainer. She’s much more a funky groove chef than a great singer. Her vocals are wispy and non-committal, but armed with her bass and a tight band, there were smoldering sonic stews being conjured throughout her hour-and-20-minute set. She also does exactly as she pleases. There were no hits (unless you count the one “Plantation Lullabies” song she performed, “Outside Your Door”) and 11 of the 17 songs she did are from the new album. I’m all for artistic license and unpredictability — you don’t go to a Meshell show expecting hits — but even that was, admittedly a bit self indulgent on her part. But she doesn’t care and that’s part of her charm. She did make some small talk and said she was enjoying herself — but she’s so laid back and “chill” it can be a bit polarizing. Nobody expects her to be Wayne Newton, of course, but I mean c’mon — isn’t there some middle ground she could stomach without feeling like a human juke box?
1. Andaluza (piano solo)
2. The Christmas Song (strings)
3. Gloria We Sing
6. My Sweet Lawd
7. Emmanuel Medley
8. Jesus Brings Joy
9. Perfect Praise
10. Wonderful Child Medley
11. Ave Maria
12. O Holy Night
13. In the Bleak Midwinter (GMCW)
14. I’ll Be Home For Christmas/Merry Christmas Darling (GMCW)
15. Music of Hanukkah (GMCW)
16. Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard on High (Oleta Adams)
17. Breath of Heaven (Oleta Adams)
18. Get Here (Oleta Adams)
19. Carols from around the world — a cappella (various soloists)
20. Joy to the World (MCC w/ Oleta Adams)
Chaka Khan’s set
1. High Wire
2. I’ll Be Around
3. To Sir With Love
4. My Funny Valentine
5. Hissing of Summer Lawns
6. Two Grey Rooms
7. Man From Mars
8. Ladies Man
10. Everlasting Love
11. Through the Fire
12. Tell Me Something Good
13. Fool’s Paradise
14. What Cha Gonna Do 4 Me
15. Ain’t Nobody (encore)
Meshell Ndegeocello’s set
3. Dirty World
4. A Bitter Mule
5. Bright Shiny Morning
6. Lady Cab Driver (Prince)
7. Outside Your Door
8. Blood on the Curb
9. Feeling for the Wall
11. Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
13. Crazy and Wild
15. Rapid Fire
16. Don’t Take My Kindness for Weakness
17. Dead End (encore)