Photo: Robert Marovich, Journal of Gospel Music
By Bob Marovich
The intimate Mayne Stage theater on Chicago’s North Side reverberated with blasts of EDM, raucous drums, snarling electric guitar, thumping bass, chiming keyboards, and an Apple computer churning out beats like a jukebox. The vocalists had the standing room only crowd on its feet, hands waving, dancing, and offering exuberant applause after each song.
I’m not describing a rock or R&B concert but the Bridges Tour, starring contemporary gospel artists Kierra Sheard, Jojo Martin, and Jor’Dan Armstrong.
Singer-songwriter, recording artist, actor, fashion designer, and media presence Sheard, whose mother is Karen Clark Sheard and grandmother the late Dr. Mattie Moss Clark, told the audience that the purpose of the Bridges Tour is to “bridge the gap between faith and real life.” If the music inspires, empowers, and encourages, that’s all that matters.
The concept of offering churchgoers a Saturday night alternative to clubs is not new. For decades, religious shepherds—be they pastors or gospel artists—have sponsored Christian entertainment grounded in spirituality as an alternative to clubbing, which has historically been tainted by its close association with instruments of vice, such as drinking, gambling, and risqué dancing. Churches and auditoriums hold multi-artist gospel music concerts to give Christians a place to revel in the beat of the city while enjoying songs whose lyrics offer comforting themes of encouragement and hope.
Sheard packed the first half and the conclusion of her set with a passing parade of her gospel hits. They covered the length of her solo career—such as “All I Am” from her debut studio album I Owe You, “Indescribable” from Free, and “Kill the Dragon” and “Flaws” from Graceland, her latest release.
What was distinctive about this program, and served to prove the point of the Bridges concept, was the set of secular songs of empowerment and uplifting individuality. For this, Sheard was unapologetic. After covering Coldplay’s “Paradise,” she told the audience: “I listen to other genres of music. You get like you don’t, but that’s fine.” Of course, Sheard knew what would happen and it did: the minute she invited the audience to sing along with songs such as Beyonce’s “Sorry,” everyone knew the words and became an instant choir. When the set ended in a praise break, Sheard said, “See? We just bridged the gap!”
Prior to Sheard’s appearance, gospel hip hop artist Jor’Dan Armstrong had the audience throwing shapes to blasts of EDM. “We can be Christians and still be cool,” Armstrong declared, and he offered “Bless Up,” “Swish,” and “Real” from his 2016 EP, Confident, as examples. Still, he connected most with the audience when he directed them in a singalong medley of P&W songs.
The most poignant moment of the night belonged to Josiah “Jojo” Martin, the opening artist. Though a young man, Martin is plagued by a hereditary kidney disease that he treats with dialysis three times a week and walks with the assistance of a cane. But his kidney is on the way, he declared, and sang his new single, the melodic “Run On,” released on PJ Morton’s self-titled record label.
Despite her caveat that she was a little under the weather, Sheard was all energy—dancing, whipping her long locks back and forth, and chatting with the audience, even taking phones from audience members and videoing herself singing. As often happens in gospel music, the sheer force of the band overpowered Sheard’s vocals on all but the more subtle selections, so she had to shout in the mike when her trademark purr would have sufficed. The audience did not seem to mind, however.
The Mayne Stage stop was the second on the Bridges Tour, which started in Sheard’s hometown of Detroit and picks up again in late August, with performances in Cleveland and Los Angeles. The formula works, and with a better sound balance between singer and music, the Bridges Tour will demonstrate to gospel enthusiasts Kierra Sheard’s eclectic musical palette–and that the world won’t end if you want to move to a self-empowering Beyonce song at a Christian program.