To look at them, the men and women gathered in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church didn’t much resemble a gospel choir. But when they opened their mouths and sang, the sound that filled the room defied the stereotypes.
“Ride the chariot in the morning, Lord. Ride the chariot in the morning, Lord. I’m gonna ride in the chariot to see my Lord.”
Bob Bahr, the Bar Harbor resident who’s directing the group, smiled and pointed to several women sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front row of folding chairs.
“When you do that last note and you just nail it, sopranos,” he said, “the heavens split.”
Bahr, has worked on dozens of musicals performed in Bangor, Ellsworth and Bar Harbor over the past three decades, turned his attention to the tenor and bass singers.
“You need to hit that R,” he instructed. “It really needs to be like a bull whip. Mormon Tabernacle Choir, watch out.”
The informal choir and its performance Sunday was the inspiration of Roger George, a Bangor hairdresser and member of the church on York Street where the rehearsal was held. He also is an African-American who grew up in Bangor and believes what the city really needs is more gospel music.
George helped organize a joint service of All Souls Congregation Church and St. John’s that featured gospel music in February for Martin Luther King Day. He also produced the Bangor Rotary show “Music Off Broadway — At the Hop!” in March.
For Sunday’s concert, which is a fundraiser for his church, George once again pulled together the best voices within about 30 miles of Bangor. Many of the singers are veteran performers with Bangor Community Theater and The Grand in Ellsworth. Others sing in church choirs or small groups.
“I think people like hearing gospel music,” he said during a rehearsal earlier this week. “It’s been very well received at the [American] Folk Festival. It’s also a great opportunity for local singers to perform this kind of music and an opportunity for the local community to hear it.”
Ben Layman, who just finished a three-week run of performing in the musical “Forever Plaid” with the Penobscot Theatre Co., said it feel good to be singing with a large group again after being part of a quartet in the play.
“I needed to get back into choral music,” he said. “I used to do it a lot when I was younger in those ‘war horse’ musicals they did at The Grand. I realized in doing ‘Plaid’ that I was really rusty on blending.
“I also just want to sing this music,” Layman continued. “Besides, it’s good to do a little church music now and then.”
The arrangements the group will be performing aren’t the standards printed in most hymnals. The version of “Amazing Grace” Bahr played at a rehearsal sounded more like a honky-tonk jazz tune than a hymn written by a man who once captained a slave ship. It was not the “Amazing Grace” sung around campfires or played at funerals on a church organ.
Yet that is exactly what made it so appealing for the singers.
“I love this music,” Jody Chasse, a Bangor resident and parishioner at St. Mary Catholic Church. “It touches a part of you that you can’t say with words. You have to sing it. You have to celebrate it.”
But capturing the essence of gospel music is challenging for a group that is 90 percent Caucasian.
“Come on, ladies and gentleman,” Bahr said, “you’ve got a lot more soul than that. It’s just a little too white bread now.”
George, however, was confident that by Sunday the choir will sound as if its members have been singing gospel music all their lives.
If you go:
Time: 3 p.m.
Place: John Bapst Memorial High School, Broadway, Bangor
Cost: $15 for adults; $10 for children.