On Sunday afternoon -- sandwiched between Beyoncé's Friday-night spectacle at Staples Center and Sunday evening's carefully planned BET Awards -- the gospel star Kirk Franklin made some room for the value of improvisation at the BET Experience.
He was at Club Nokia for a show billed as Kirk Franklin & Friends, featuring the Grammy-winning bandleader along with Donnie McClurkin (with whom Franklin toured last year as the King's Men), Karen Clark Sheard, Kierra Sheard and several winners of "Sunday Best," the gospel singing competition Franklin hosts on BET.
The goal, as a representative from the network put it in his opening remarks, was to replicate church in the midst of a busy music festival.
But first there were some technical kinks to be worked out. So while members of the stage crew tended to whatever equipment was acting up, Franklin kept the crowd occupied by holding an impromptu "Sunday Best" audition: He asked the audience who wanted to try out, selected a woman wearing a light-blue dress and invited her to the lip of the stage, where she belted out a bit of Donald Lawrence's "Encourage Yourself."
"See, the reason I love gospel music," Franklin said after she was done, is that a singer can just grab a microphone "and with no production, no Auto-Tune, she can just kill it."
Franklin emphasized that quality again later in the show, when the crowd called Le'Andria Johnson back to the stage following the "Sunday Best" winner's performance of "He Keeps on Blessing Me" and "God Will Take Care of You." Several fans wanted to hear Johnson sing her song "Jesus," and Franklin wasn't prepared to disappoint them.
Had Johnson brought along the backing track for "Jesus"? She had not. As Franklin had pointed out earlier, though, gospel singers hardly require such formalities.
"Just give 'em a little appetizer," he told Johnson. "A Buffalo wing version."
In fact, she provided something more substantial than that: "Jesus" burned with a quiet, assured intensity.
Sunday's show offered other thrills, including Franklin's ebullient "I Smile," a surprise appearance by Marvin Sapp (who sang his crossover hit "Never Would Have Made It") and a typically fiery sermon by McClurkin -- one he said he'd changed at the last minute on the advice of God -- in which he railed against the "blood lust of religion" and asked, "Where did we learn the art of condemnation?"
The Psalms Choir from Gardena's City of Refuge church wowed the crowd, as well, with the kind of synchronized vocal control that suggests a flock of birds or a school or fish.
The result was a mission accomplished: the church experience inside a nightclub. But it also met the benchmark Franklin said he'd set for the show. "If you left Beyoncé sweaty and stinky," he told the audience before a rollicking take on his song "Brighter Day," "I want you to leave here sweaty and stinky."
Twitter: @mikaelwoodCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun