Two of the most diverse gospel music groups ever to perform at the American Folk Festival brought crowds of mostly unchurched Mainers to their feet over the weekend.
The Paschall Brothers of Richmond, Va., sang traditional a cappella Christian gospel songs on the rainy Saturday afternoon.
Joshua Nelson, his band and backup singers from Orange, N.J., warmed and wowed a crowd Saturday night with Nelson’s kosher gospel that was huddled under the tent at the Penobscot Stage.
Both groups sang about God, but the Paschall Brothers emphasized Jesus while Nelson, a Jew, blended Hebrew liturgical songs with the black gospel style of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin.
The Virginia-based singing “brothers” were organized in 1981 by the late Rev. Frank Paschall Sr. and five of his seven sons. Today the group is composed of just two of his sons, a grandson and a father-son duo who married into the Paschall family. Frank Paschall Jr., Tarrence Paschall Sr. and his son Tarrence Paschall Jr., and Renard Freeman Sr., married to the Paschalls’ sister, and his son Renard Freeman Jr. performed at the festival.
The men blended their voices in an intricate weave that blanketed the crowd with songs ranging from the liturgical “The Lord’s Prayer” to the more modern “Every Child of God is Like an Automobile.”
Frank Paschall Jr. told the crowd he had been touched by the troop greeters the singers saw when they arrived at Bangor International Airport.
“I saw a man greeting a young soldier,” he said. “I thought it was his father, but I found out that people here greet every soldier that way. That was a blessing to me.”
Nelson, who played keyboards alongside a drummer, upright-bass player and three backup singers, opened with a rousing rendition of a song about rain. He moved on to a more traditional gospel rendition of “God is Great,” sung in Hebrew and English.
It was his own composition written for the students he teaches at his synagogue, titled, “I Want to Be a More Observant Jew,” that brought the audience to its feet and got it swaying to the music and singing along.
“I want to be a more observant Jew,” Nelson and the mostly secular audience sang. “I want to pray to God in Hebrew.”
Kosher gospel, according to Nelson, is a blend of the soul sounds Africans brought to America as slaves. It is a blending of the musical style which grew out of African tribal rituals and developed into what is labeled gospel today with Jewish liturgy.
It is a joyous sound designed to push past religious and ethnic diversion and reach the spirit residing in each human being, Nelson said.
The diverse music performed by Nelson and the Paschall Brothers did just that.