Gospel stars headline ‘Festival of Praise’ tour

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Gospel singer Fred Hammond says his national “Festival of Praise” tour is just like the outdoor music festivals he used to organize in Detroit, except “a little bit more mega.”

Hammond, his brother Ray and Bishop Andrew Merritt organized a series of gospel “Street Jams” at Merritt’s Straight Gate International Church in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

“We’d find a lot of artists and just let it be open for the community,” says Hammond, who was raised in Detroit and lived here until 2005. “We wanted to take that same idea on the road.”

Hammond and his brother debuted the Festival of Praise, featuring Hammond and fellow gospel star Donnie McClurkin, last year with 32 tour dates. The tour returns this year with stops in 48 cities, including a Saturday performance at Joe Louis Arena and a Sunday show at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena.

The tour’s 2015 lineup represents a broad spectrum of takes on the gospel genre, from McClurkin’s more traditional stylings to Kim Burrell’s jazz vocals to Hammond’s own urban-inflected take on praise music.

Gospel music expert Robert Darden says revue-style gospel shows like the Festival of Praise have been a staple of the gospel genre going back to the ’60s, but these days they’re more popular than ever due to the gospel world’s appreciation for diverse artists of all ages. Darden, who is Billboard magazine’s former gospel music editor, a professor of journalism at Baylor University and the author of several books on sacred music, says live shows remain the ideal setting for gospel performers and their fans.

“If I had to come up with the 25 greatest gospel albums of all time I would struggle, because recorded music has never been where they’ve been at their strongest,” Darden says. “But live music is. It’s like having an extra dose of church: all of the fun and none of the guilt.”

Hammond says the concert setting also allows some freedom for the performers.

“We don’t perform separately,” Hammond says. “We perform together. We stay on the stage together. We background each other’s songs together. We jump in on each other’s verses.”

That collaborative spirit, he says, adds an element of spontaneity to the shows.

“It creates a sense of togetherness and unity,” he says. “I could do it by myself. They could all do it by themselves. But it allows us to see ourselves in a different light and it allows the people to see us in a different light.”

The tour’s Detroit stop will be one of a handful of annual visits Hammond now makes to his hometown. He relocated to Dallas a decade ago to be closer to the spiritual mentorship of his pastor, T.D. Jakes, founder of the Potter’s House megachurch. Although he says Dallas feels like home now, it’s still “a very nostalgic moment” every time he returns to Detroit.

“The food in Detroit is like no other,” he says. “I’m looking forward to that and seeing my family and my friends. … I’m looking forward to trying to cram all of that in in one day and a half or so.”

Hammond says he is mulling new creative projects to pursue once this year’s tour is completed. Known for being among the first artists to blend gospel with contemporary urban music influences in the mid-’80s, Hammond says he’s still “trying to innovate” in his music. But the box-office success of Christian films like “War Room” has him convinced that his next step may be in an entirely new medium.

“We’re all just writing and hopefully something will hit that will bring a renaissance in gospel music,” he says. “I’m looking forward to that, but I do really believe that film is the key.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Festival of Praise Tour

Saturday - Detroit

Time: 8 p.m.

Place: Joe Louis Arena

19 Steve Yzerman Drive

Tickets $25-$60

(313) 471-6611

Sunday - Grand Rapids

Time: 6 p.m.

Place: Van Andel Arena

130 Fulton West

Tickets: $39.50-$69.50

(616) 742-6600

Nov. 19 - Saginaw

Time: 7:30 p.m.

Place: Dow Event Center

303 Johnson

Tickets: $29-$49

(989) 759-1320