Raising money and spirits with the Gospel Jubilee at The Pabst
A world without gospel music would be a far, far quieter, less tuneful world than we live in today.
"If you remove gospel music and blues from the scene – and Thomas Dorsey, who wrote some of the original standards back in the '20s – and it doesn't happen and they're not here in America, we are doing the squarest stuff since Lawrence Welk," said Milwaukee music maven John Sieger.
"You wouldn't even want to go out on a Saturday night. It would be so boring. It's the whole underpinning, and people just don't realize how boring music would be. It's a gift. It's such a cliché, you can't even hear it anymore. It's vital music for the world."
So there's no better time than the present – "a terrible time for music, if you listen to the Top 10," according to Sieger – to bring gospel, the roots of almost all popular music genres, to center stage. That's exactly what Sieger and company plan to do this Friday night with Milwaukee Gospel: Jubilee at the Pabst, a concert event that brings together five local gospel choirs – Victory In Praise Youth Choir, The Masonic Wonders, The Genesis Singers, The Sharon Travelers and The Queens of Harmony – and give them The Pabst Theater spotlight.
All of the proceeds from the show go toward Progressive Community Health Centers, an organization which provides medical and dental care to the area's under-served and uninsured.
There's no auto-tune to be found or the glossy, showy vocal runs, riffs and flourishes that impress on most reality music competitions, regardless of necessity. No one would accuse many of the singers as being the most technically accomplished either. But the songs have something potentially better than that: a beautiful, contagious power all their own, featuring rich harmonies and warm, spirited numbers sung by deeply expressive voices with grit and life experience on their souls.
"There's a certain segment of music that I listen to, and I go, 'Why are these people angry,'" Sieger said. "'Why are they depressed, singing about all these dark topics when they grew up in the suburbs. What's that about?' It's almost indefensible, when you think about it. It's a bit of an indulgence; my iPhone didn't charge last night so I'm going to write a dark song."
"That's not gospel music. Charles McCullum (of The Masonic Wonders) has lost two grandchildren to gun violence, but he still goes up there and sings super positive songs like "Lift the Savior Up." There's a similarity to the blues in that you can't sing about these things until it's processed, it comes out as something beautiful and positive. It's a response to a certain amount of adversity. There's just something totally uplifting about the music. It's like getting a good massage."
The idea for the Jubilee at The Pabst came to Sieger – a board member for Progressive – about a year and a half ago thanks to a fateful, random spark of inspiration.
"I heard Aretha Franklin on the radio the day after a board meeting, and those two things were in my head simultaneously," Sieger recalled. "I knew that they could help each other in a way."
Even though Sieger admitted that "once I have an idea, I have no idea what to do with it," he brought the idea of a gospel fundraising concert to the right people and managed to raise enough funds and gather enough sponsors to get the show on its feet.
"John said that there was so much talent in Milwaukee community, but it's spread out and no one has really brought it together, which is what he wanted to do," said John Shannon, one of the concert's sponsors. "Bringing all these groups together Friday night is going to be exciting."
In the process, Sieger brought together some of the city's finest and most enduring gospel groups. The Masonic Wonders – who Sieger has known and worked with since the early '90s – are Milwaukee's longest continually performing black gospel quartet, getting their start all the way back in 1956. The all-female Queens of Harmony are no slouches either, turning 50 this upcoming August.
"The Masonic Wonders started out, and it was the some of the wives of the Masonic Wonders who got together and decided they wanted to form a group so they could go along and perform with their husbands at different churches," said Julia Love, one of the Queens of Harmony as well as the group's manager. "The manager of the Masonic Wonders actually named the group the Queens of Harmony, and that's kind of how they got started."
Unfortunately, only one of the group's founding organizers remains in the Queens of Harmony, but there's still plenty of tradition. Love, for instance, has been with the group for about 35 years, and many of the current Queens of Harmony have family connections to one another. Then, of course, there's the music, which is a tradition that connects everybody and goes back even further.
"I was basically raised with quartet gospel singing from a little girl on up until I was able to get with a group," Love said. "My uncle, my mom, cousins. It was kind of like a family-oriented musical family. It was all gospel. You'd go to church and you'd hear people clap their hands and stomp their feet and just get into it. And the voices! The different parts in the voices would kind of make that melodious sound, which was great."
For Love, Sieger and the rest of the powerful singers participating in the Jubilee, the hope is to share that gospel sound and experience – in a pure form not usually seen in pop culture – with the rest of Milwaukee. Sieger would love to make the Jubilee a yearly event as well.
"There are five groups this year, and we could do five groups next year," Sieger said. "We wouldn't have to repeat ourselves too much. There's a huge scene in Milwaukee, and it's a secret. Why is it a secret? There are great singers in this building right now that nobody's heard of."
Milwaukee Gospel: Jubilee at The Pabst is Friday, Feb. 21 at The Pabst Theater. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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