Review: Shirley Caesar, After 40 Years . . . Still Sweeping Through the City
Although I’m not a religious man, once or twice a year I usually find myself listening to gospel music. I think I enjoy it so much for the same reason I enjoy soul music and the Italian opera of Verdi and the verismo school, it’s passionate music passionately sung. To sate my most recent desire for gospel I picked up Shirley Caesar’s “After 40 years . . . Still Sweeping Through the City”. How little I know about this type of music is indicated by my not knowing who Caesar is until I picked up this CD. That’s like saying, “Hey, I got this cool CD by some Irish band I’ve never heard of called U2”, only Caesar has been at it longer and has won more accolades that U2.
“Still Sweeping Through the City” is a retrospective of her forty year recording career that was organized as a live recording at the Mount Calvary World of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is a minister. She’s backed by a full band and, most notably, the Mount Calvary World of Faith Choir and Angelic Voice of Abundant Life. The choir rocks. To put it mildly. Caesar has a big, big, powerful voice that isn’t even close to being overwhelmed by the enormous musical engine behind her. Even in the world of gospel music where powerful woman vocalists are the norm, Caesar stands out. You listen to that voice and then think . . .”Wait a minute, “40 years”? How old is this woman?” The CD doesn’t indicate when the gig was recorded but she began her solo recording career in 1966. If the CD was recorded forty years later in 2006, she was 67 or 68. Are you kidding? 67 or 68? I don’t know what she sounded like as a young woman but there’s not a hint of weakening in her voice now. Amazing.
With the exception of a few tracks like “Hold My Mule” and “Choose Ye This Day” the CD sounds more like a gospel show than a gospel service where the congregation is actively and intimately involved with the music. It’s polite, which is a shame because I would really like to hear this woman with her congregation and choir in the throes of a weekly service when the walls of proper response come down and applause at the appropriate moments gives way to unbridled expressions of the joy that infuses these songs. It may have been going on at this concert but the recording didn’t catch it. Caesar, the band and the choir are very well miked but the audience sounds removed.
While the music is great, the liner notes seem a little strange. The blurb goes on about how Caesar’s music has nurtured and uplifted the faithful through the years and each decade of her career is characterized by the events and people that made it noteworthy in the eyes of whoever wrote the notes. The decade of the ’90s is characterized as “an era of disaster with earthquakes, the Gulf War, the death of Princess Diana and the y2k bug.” Now I expect some people will remember the Gulf War as military triumph rather than as a disaster but maybe this is a quiet political statement. But the Y2K bug was a disaster? What’s that all about?
I can’t speak to whether fans of gospel music will find this CD of interest but if you are unfamiliar with gospel and would like to sample joyful well-recorded music sung by a woman of great talent and enormous voice backed by a powerful choir give “Sweeping Through the City” a listen.
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