For a Christmas show billed as the "hottest" coming to L.A., the Gospel Divas 2002 concert was oddly bereft of the familiar seasonal trimmings. Save for the scarlet suit -- or three -- and a few fur collars turned up against a Southern California chill, there was nary a pine wreath, tinsel tree nor a dusted-off, light-up replica of the wise men and Baby Jesus in the manger.
But no matter, the 365-day message of how to stay the course was there in full force. And maybe that was the point.
Hosted by City of Refuge, the brand-spanking-new Gardena home of Bishop Noel Jones' Greater Bethany Church, the event was a chance to corral gospel music's premier preaching divas in one space over two days.
Friday night's program featured belters B.J. Stanton, Dorinda Clarke-Cole, Shirley Caesar and Vickie Winans in a well-paced three hours of party and praise.
Though challenged by a sound system that was alternately muddy or unevenly miked, the evening went off without a hitch and highlighted a teeter-totter of styles, some of that old-time organ-blasting religion balanced with a healthy shot of hip-hop bounce.
Stanton kicked things off with a short, tight set of song and sermon, promising that "Jesus Will Make a Way." But it was Clark-Cole, backed by the synchronized 40-member Voices of Judah Choir, who first dug into the heavy-duty preaching. Posing those probing end-of-the-year questions, she declared, "Tonight, we're here in God's waiting room where God is working some things out in your favor. Question is: 'What do I do while I wait?' " Clark-Cole then splashed the crowd with a sparkling version of "I'm Coming Out," a number from her latest, self-titled album, losing her jewelry as she traveled verse to verse.
Backed by a powerful quartet, grande dame diva Caesar, glowing in creamy white-and-gold brocade and modified goddess braids, handily took the reins. Four decades in the business, Caesar knows how to take command of a room with something as simple as a raised brow or assured nod. "Armor of God," choreographed in a formation march, Motown-style, was turned into an altar call, seeking eager enlistees.
A generous Caesar passed the microphone around to any and all "soldiers in the army of the Lord" who gathered at the rim of the riser. Women in their work suits and mules, men in jeans and matching denim jackets, some in stocking feet -- singing their praises in big, rafter-blasting voices.
"I may get older," said Caesar, "but the anointing stays the same." No one would have any of it. Caesar's wise, deeply grooved voice, her bright eyes and her steely command of the room show only that age means power and focus, not weakness.
So just how does one follow Caesar? If you're Vickie Winans, you do it with sequins, sass and stand-up. Winans teased the crowd with a performance that felt more like an after-hours routine than holy ritual.
"You know those people," cracked Winans, peering coquettishly over her shoulder. "Oh, I'm too spiritual to laugh." She then admonished, "Some of y'all ain't laughed since God was a boy!" But that didn't mean she didn't work the message.
Into her prickly one-liners she wove a series of personal struggles that have beset her over the years -- the death of her father, her mother's current bout with diabetes, a risky operation on her vocal chords. She offset all of it with a collection of jubilant music selections, showing off a survivor's voice on the Caribbean-tinged "I Hear the Music in the Air" and one of those "good old songs," "Long as I Got King Jesus."
So maybe the evening wasn't all decked out in red and green and you couldn't put it under the tree, but you can lay it all next to your heart.
Besides, as Winans summed it up, "I came here to have fun."