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Pop music review: How Sweet the Sound is uplifting gospel

October 30, 2011 |  9:01 pm

America’s best gospel choirs deliver messages of praise and redemption during the competition’s finale at Staples. The winner: Salvation and Deliverance of Tarboro, N.C.

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On Friday night at Staples Center, a group of snazzily dressed young singers from Tarboro, N.C., was declared America’s best church choir. The judgment came down from three gospel-music heavyweights -- Marvin Sapp, Shirley Caesar and Israel Houghton -- during the finale of Verizon’s How Sweet the Sound competition: nine choirs, each the winner of its respective regional semifinal, vying for $25,000 and that quasi-official title, which you can bet the Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir will brandish with pride from now on. Confetti rained down as the group’s director accepted an aquarium-sized check; the moment had some fierce victory-lap grandeur to it.

Yet this densely programmed three-hour event felt only rarely like a contest. Hosted by another pair of A-list gospel stars, Donald Lawrence and CeCe Winans, How Sweet the Sound downplayed its animating rivalry, even as the judges delivered their comments in a performance-then-critique form familiar from any number of TV talent shows. When Caesar told the All Nations Choir from Alsip, Ill., that it didn’t sound like it was competing for an earthly prize, her observation was understood to be a compliment.

Naturally, Friday’s production emphasized worship over sport: Lawrence repeatedly peppered his banter with sermon-like exhortations, while Sapp hailed the Christian Life Center Mass Choir from Stockton, Calif., as "crazy anointed." (Whatever your religious leanings, you had to agree with him. Singing Kurt Carr’s "My Time for God’s Favor (The Presence of the Lord)," the group worked up to a remarkable frenzy, with one male soloist projecting an energy that Houghton described as "if Jim Carrey got the Holy Ghost.")

PHOTOS: How Sweet the Sound

Even more than a church service, though, How Sweet the Sound functioned as a kind of trade show, its goal to demonstrate the vitality -- and the variety -- of gospel music at a moment of diminished optimism. "You will never be broke another day in your life," Lawrence assured the audience after All Nations’ stormy rendition of his "Bless Me/The Prayer of Jabez." "Your struggles are officially over."

In All Nations’ complex, almost sensual embrace of hardship, its performance was an outlier Friday; other choirs presented more streamlined messages of praise and redemption. But each group tailored its proclamation to its specific circumstance. Taken together, they covered a remarkable amount of stylistic ground, from the starchily traditional (Metropolitan Community Church of Greater St. Louis Choir) to the boldly theatrical (Anointed Voices of Higher Ground Young Adult Choir from Columbus, Ohio).

Salvation and Deliverance, the winning ensemble, condensed that spectrum into a single performance of Handel’s "Hallelujah" chorus. It began with an ordinary recitation of the piece, then transitioned suddenly into a "Bohemian Rhapsody"-style riot of flavors and idioms. Midway through the number, the choir’s members removed their robes, revealing crisp cardigan-and-bow-tie outfits.

Like any trade show, How Sweet the Sound featured appearances by marquee talent. Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton sang a dreary tune from their upcoming gospel-choir movie, and Chaka Khan presented a lifetime-achievement award to singer-songwriter Andraé Crouch, whose shaggy-dog acceptance speech culminated in the appealingly peculiar claim that God had "given [him] at least 1,700 songs." The three judges performed as well, with Caesar shuffling across the stage with a sprightliness that belied her 73 years.

But none of these moments attracted more attention than anything else Friday night; they were contributing to a whole that seemed irreducible. At the end of the show, the entire company -- contestants, judges, hosts, even actor Courtney B. Vance, in a front-row seat -- joined voices in a rendition of Lawrence’s "The Blessing of Abraham," and it wasn’t at all clear who was in charge.

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-- Mikael Wood

Photo: St. John Music Ministery choir competes. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times.

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