Pastor Brady Blades Sr. dabbed a handkerchief to his sweaty forehead and gazed across the pews inside First African Baptist Church. "I can't believe this many people showed up to hear the gospel music," he said, and added a little joke: "There's something wrong with you people."
Saturday night, the historic sanctuary held a capacity crowd of 720, there to see and hear the 72-year-old Blade and his touring show, the Hallelujah Train. He's been the pastor at Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, La. for 51 years, where he's just as legendary for his baritone singing voice as his fiery sermons.
The Hallelujah Train includes Blades, his church's 27-member mass choir and their musical director and organist, Sereca Henderson.
It was a full-throttle, praise-the-lord gospel music revue, augmented by a soulful rhythm ‘n' blues band that included the pastor's two drumming sons, Brady Jr. and Brian, and a couple of big names in Americana, jazz and country music.
This wasn't a "musical ministry"; the pastor kept his between-song patter to a minimum, and after every third or fourth song he sat down to have a rest, wipe his forehead, and let a member of the chorus take a solo.
The best of these was 80-year-Ada Smalls, a 51-year member of the Zion Baptist congregation, who belted "Surely God is Able" like a young and possessed Shirley Caesar.
Blade, with the power of the choir behind him, sang about baptism ("Take Me to the Water"), the inherent benefits of faith ("Give Me Jesus," "The Lord Been Good to Me") and his own advancing age ("This May Be My Last Time"). He delivered a beautiful rendition of "Amazing Grace."
It was stirring, and every time Blades let loose with a wicked wail (a little Al Green, a bit of James Brown and a double-shot of Screamin' Jay Hawkins), the foundation shook, in the building that's been a cornerstone of black Christian faith in Savannah since 1859.
First African, ironically, might not have been the best choice of a venue in which to present the Hallelujah Train. Those sitting jammed in the balconies couldn't see half of the performers -- and because Blades sang while standing on the red carpeting directly in front of the stage, he was not raised, and the sightline from the back of the room was virtually nonexistent.
Not that the guest musicians - Daniel Lanois, Buddy Miller, Greg Liesz, Jon Cowherd and Chris Thomas - were chosen for their good looks. But they were, all of them, seated on the floor behind the pastor.
Musically, the poker-faced Liesz was the standout, playing soulful pedal steel, lap steel and Dobro. Miller sang lead on the country gospel ballad "Wide Wide River." Lanois, playing a gold Gibson Les Paul guitar, mostly stuck to chords and the occasional R&B riff.
The irony of singing these songs of praise, salvation and hope in a difficult world to a mostly-white audience that paid $40 or more per ticket was not lost on the pastor.
"Are you all rich folks?" he asked. No response.
"Do we have any poor folks here?" Nervous laughter, a few raised hands in the front row.
Blade pointed to them. "You white folks poor?" he asked.
The music was great, the singing inspired, but things never really caught fire; it was a concert performance, not a revival meeting. Nobody suddenly and loudly accepted Jesus into their heart; there were no blissed-out walks to the altar for spontaneous sin-cleansing. Actually, that would have been kind of cool.
(There was, however, a lot of spirited hand-clapping, much of it on the wrong beat.)
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