What could be better for an Easter celebration than getting on your feet and singing along in praise to Jesus? According to Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-pianist Richard Smallwood and his Vision Choir, nothing! Hosted by Duke Performances at the charming Carolina Theatre in Downtown Durham, NC, this gospel group was greeted by a standing ovation before even entering the auditorium. Aaron Greenwald of Duke Performances notified the audience that the concert would be performed as one long set: "There will be no opener, no up-and-comers, just the main middle," which was met with thunderous applause and an audience on its feet – where it stayed for the majority of the night.
Smallwood, a reverend, composer, pianist, and singer, announced upon entering, "I don't believe in concerts; I believe in worship...; if you came to be entertained, you are in the wrong place, but if you came to praise Jesus, you are in the right place." However, it would be impossible not to be entertained, regardless of creed, denomination, or religious preference.
The choir began with an energetic medley that showed off their tight harmonies and high spirits. Made up of 16 members, Vision Choir has sung together for 18 years, with only two changes in membership in that time. They worked together well and thrived on each other's energy in singing, dancing, and praising. Smallwood showed his appreciation for them, explaining how great it was to have "people who follow your vision and see what you see... or don't even see it and follow you anyway."
The choir and its supporting five-piece band were highly amplified, even though the sound of these animated musicians hardly needed amplification; the artists displayed great balance and blend. Anthony Walker and Bryant Pugh played piano and keyboard when Smallwood was leading the choir and were no less talented than he. Guitarist Michael Pugh, bassist Mark Walker, and drummer Jeff Davis added to the pizzazz and life of the party on stage with cohesive rhythms and funky grooves.
The choir performed a variety of songs from different eras of Vision and Smallwood's career. Highlights, which were announced from the stage because there was no printed list of songs performed, included "Promises," a project that Smallwood collaborated on with Bishop Walter Hawkins before his death, "Mender of Broken Hearts," "Calvary" – particularly appropriate for Easter because it relates to Jesus Christ's crucifixion - "I Gotta Praise and I Gotta Get Down," a medley from Vision's first CD recording "Adoration: Live in Atlanta," and the most exciting song of the night, "I Lift My Hands," which left the audience on its feet with hands upraised in such excitement that no one seemed to want to leave the auditorium, even though the concert was over.
The most impressive song of the night featured a performance of "Jesus, You Are the Center of My Joy," which began with Smallwood on a gorgeous solo piano line. The song was originally composed in 1975 – "when I was about 2," Smallwood joked. It ended with a solo soprano singing the chorus with the rest of the choir backing her up, a lovely arrangement of a song that could have lasted much longer because of how different it was from everything else on the program.
Each Vision Choir and band member was fully engaged for every moment of the show, individually showing their excitement for certain moments with hand waving and dancing, but always remaining part of the ensemble. Almost every member of the choir sang at least one impressive solo that showcased the flexibility, passion, and life of the human voice.
This performance was very enjoyable, although the gospel style was very similar in each song, which may have started to get a little tiresome for those not used to gospel. It was hard to put aside the religious nature of the concert, especially with the disclaimer that the concert was meant more as a celebration of God, but the music was delightful and imparted a pleasant energy, regardless of religious affiliation.