Aftermath: The Jones Family Singers at the Rothko Chapel

Thanks to Monday's MLK Day and Tuesday's inauguration, among other reasons, Aftermath has been thinking about the intersection of faith, music and religion a lot lately. Obviously, even during one of the darkest periods anyone under 80 can remember during our lifetimes, this nation is about to embark - excuse me, as of 11 a.m. Houston time, has embarked - on a great period of spritual renewal. Where music fits into this picture was made clear by the Jones Family Singers' performance at Monday evening's interfaith service in honor of Dr. King: It's both the picture and the frame.

"I became Lutheran about 10 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 audience, a Montrose-centric cross-section of all ages, colors, orientations and creeds. Tentative clapping and near-clapping during the opening number "Trying Times" eventually blossomed into everyone on their feet within seconds, clapping vigorously during driving finale "Down on Me."


The Jones Family Singers, "Trying Times," live in Cleburne

Aftermath has always loved gospel music, but it's always been a little problematic for him as well. Since they're practically inseperable, is it really possible to fully appreciate the music without embracing the message? These are the sorts of thoughts that come to mind scribbling critical notes during a religious service - if nondenominational, religious all the same - on a day rooted in tolerance and acceptance.

So let's be critical, if only for a second. Lead vocalist Alexis Jones-Roberts' voice was a little shaky and tentative at first, but by the end of "Trying Times," had found its way into its sweet spot - all the way down at the low end of the 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 could well have ripped the poor chapel apart. Vocally, the chapel had perfect acoustics to enhance the various harmonic configurations, and at times Alexis' voice filled the room at least three times over.

The Jones Family Singers at Dallas' House of Blues, August 2008

Similarly, the 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, in gospel music that's sort of beside the point. Furthermore, Jones - whose singing voice during "Ordinary People" was as smooth as his "baby girl" Alexis' was rough - explained why the Bay City-based Joneses were a little wearier than usual late in the set: 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.

"It's time to get back to our faith," Jones said before the group's next-to-last song (refrain: "giving it back to you"), so Aftermath spent wondering what exactly that meant to him. He believes in music, but is that enough? Like Don McLean sang in "American Pie," can music save your mortal soul? Whatever people may believe about God, Jesus, any other recognized deity or even themselves, music is the closest thing to a direct line to their higher power there is - and in many cases, it is their higher power.

Still wondering about this during today's inaugural activities and President Obama's stark but rousing address - Aftermath actually banged his fist on his desk when Obama concluded with "God bless the United States of America" - he 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."

So Aftermath may still be hashing out the specifics of his own faith, and may be for years to come, but he is absolutely certain that music - be it the Jones Family, Beethoven, Johnny Cash or the Rolling Stones - is a doorway to another spiritual dimension, whatever may be on the other side and whoever may have put it there. And thus, he's certain that if that wasn't God, it must have been somebody, or something, just as cool.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray