Don't Stop Believin'

Noise has been thinking about the relationship between faith, music and religion — call it spirituality if you must — a lot lately, but it really hit a high-water mark last week. Friends and family going through health crises and losing their jobs, a bank account that's seen better days and too many sleepless nights (or, alternately, hungover mornings) has amounted to, if not a full-blown crisis of faith, a lot of Bruce Springsteen and U2 on the CD player.

Then there was this little thing called the inauguration. Even during one of the darkest periods anyone younger than 80 can remember during our lifetimes, as of 11 a.m. Houston time last Tuesday, this nation has embarked on a period of great spiritual renewal, and not a moment too soon.

Even half a continent away, it was hard not to get swept up in the cathartic exhilaration of the events going down in Washington D.C.; in all honesty, I didn't even try. I've never been an especially political animal — and, due to a zoning quirk (gotta love Houston), didn't even vote in the November election — but enough is enough, and I was as ready as anyone else for change I could believe in.

The night before the inauguration, which just happened to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day — some things defy even coincidence — I walked through Montrose to the Rothko Chapel for an interfaith service honoring Dr. King and a special performance by Bay City-based gospel group the Jones Family Singers. (Memo to the teenagers strumming Journey on an acoustic guitar outside The Menil Collection: Never stop believing.) I had no idea, but the Rothko has a long history with Dr. King: Barnett Freeman's "Broken Obelisk" sculpture outside the chapel is dedicated to the late civil rights leader.

"I became Lutheran about ten years ago, but I still love good gospel music," Rothko Executive Director Emilee Dawn Whitehurst said during her opening remarks. So, it's safe to say, did the rest of the nearly full house, a Montrose-­centric cross section of all ages, colors, orientations and creeds. Tentative clapping, near-clapping and head-nodding during opening number "Trying Times" eventually blossomed into everyone on their feet, clapping vigorously, during driving finale "Down on Me."

I've likewise always loved gospel music, but it's always been a little problematic for me as well. Since the two are all but inseparable, is it really possible to fully appreciate the music without embracing the message? These are the sorts of thoughts that come to mind scribbling critic's notes during a religious service — if nondenominational, religious all the same — on a day rooted in tolerance and forgiveness.

So let's be critical, if only for a second. Lead vocalist Alexis Jones-Roberts's voice was a little raspy and tentative at first, but by the end of "Trying Times" had found its way into its sweet spot way down at the low end of her register. The keyboard and drum-machine accompaniment was a little thin when pitted against the five-member vocal corps — all children, grandchildren or close relations of leader Bishop Fred A. Jones Sr. — but a live band in a room as tiny as the Rothko might well have ripped the poor chapel apart (to say nothing of the audience's eardrums). Vocally, the chapel had perfect acoustics to enhance the various harmonic configurations, and at times Alexis's voice filled the room at least three times over.

The musical arrangements leaned a little too heavily on smoothed-over '80s R&B — keyboardist Fred Jones Jr. has taken a jazz lesson or two, and probably got an A — but again, with gospel music that's sort of beside the point. Whatever form it takes, the music is simply a means to convey the message within, and the Jones Family's was familiar but evergreen: trusting in God to get you through the hard times; repaying Him in prayer and praise when He does.

Furthermore, Jones Sr., whose singing voice during "Ordinary People" was as smooth as his "baby girl" Alexis's was rough, explained why his family was a little wearier than usual late in the set: a busy MLK weekend capped by two full sets the day before at House of Blues' gospel brunch. (Well played, HOB...bring 'em back.)

"We're looking down 288 toward [state highway] 35, but we're doing our best," Jones Sr. said. Amen, brother.

"It's time to get back to our faith," Jones said before the Family's next-to-last song, which I spent wondering what exactly it meant to me. I believe in music, but is that enough? Like Don McLean sang in "American Pie," can music save your mortal soul?

Whatever I believe — it's a bit of a stretch to call myself "Christian," and "spiritual" always feels like a cop-out, but I'm not about to line up with the nonbelievers either — music has always been my celestial road map. And whether it was playing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" with his high school orchestra, seeing U2 in concert or listening to Hank Williams Sr. on a cold, lonesome night, anytime I've felt what might be called the hand of God, it's always been in a musical context. I'm sure I'm far from alone — for people like the Joneses, music is a direct line to their higher power, and for many others it is their higher power.

Still pondering all this during last Tuesday's inaugural activities and President Obama's brusque but rousing address — I actually banged my fist on my desk when the new chief executive spoke the words "God bless the United States of America," laughed out loud during the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery's "brown can stick around" benediction and parroted the crowd on the National Mall's hearty "Amens" at the end — I did some research and found a quote from Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno that really hit home: "Faith which does not doubt is dead faith."

I may still be hashing out the specifics of my own faith, and probably will be for years to come, but I'm absolutely certain that music — be it the Jones Family, Bach, Johnny Cash or the Rolling Stones — will show me the way. Is showing me the way. Whatever form it takes, music is humanity's portal to some other spiritual dimension, whatever may be on the other side and whoever may have put it there.

And thus, I know that if that wasn't God, it must have been somebody, or something, just as cool.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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