Ain’t every day dude steps up and tells you he’s about putting the stank on Gospel. Specially when said dude is a former missionary with significant cred in Gospel music and a founding member of Canada’s premiere old school Gospel act. But Marcus Mosely is a man with a mission and a heart full of soul. When he says the stank is needful, believe it.
“ The mission is to bring Gospel music back into the mainstream. We’re doing it by emphasising the music, not the message. We’re putting The Sojourners stank on because people seem to like it like that”, says the Texas-born Mosley from his Vancouver crib.
The rest of the “we” are Ron Small and Will Sanders, formerly of Chicago, Illinois and Alexandria, Louisiana, respectively, and together they makeup The Sojourners. The trio initially came together four years ago to do background vocals for blues legend Jim Byrnes on his Juno winning album, House of Refuge. The experience was such a big up for all involved The Sojourners decided to stay together and since then has enjoyed a dual life as its own group and as Jim Byrnes backing act.
In the Eighties Mosely settled in a Vancouver with almost as many Gospel acts as Moscow.
“ I wasn’t connected at first but as far as I can recall there was only the one Gospel act called Faces, which ocassionally did gigs outside of the church circuit.”
Lacking the substantial black population base, which supports Gospel in cities such as Halifax and Montreal, that situation wouldn’t change until Vancouver’s population became more racially mixed.
“ Its gotten a little better now, with groups like Gospel Explosion who regularly do shows for the secular market, outside the church. For instance, the Yale Hotel, a well-known blues bar, has an ongoing Gospel show on Sundays and here are a few other venues which feature Gospel acts. But I wouldn’t say it has that big a presence on the music scene in general. The Sojourners would like to change that.”
They wouldn’t be the first Gospel act to try cracking that toughest of musical nuts but Mosely isn’t worried as his crew has a solid ace up its collective sleeve.
“ I was a missionary all over the world for 16 years and music was a very important part of that. Whether with words or music, I learnt it was better to communicate with the uplifting and positive rather than the dire and gloomy. I took my guitar everywhere I went and the music I played wasn’t all Gospel. I played any music that would relate in a positive way.
“ We do this when we take the music into the secular world. You go into a club, the people are there for a good time. We figure if an audience gets into the energy of the music they’re more likely to get or be open to the inspirational experience. No point in putting preachy music in front of people who are out for a good time. The point is communicating and to communicate you have to speak their language or make yours relevant to them. We broke out as a vocal trio and could have gone out purely as a Gospel chorale act. But putting an electric band instantly makes the music of interest to a lot more folk.”
House of Refuge hit big for Jim Byrnes and took The Sojourners along with it. They went from gigging on the Left Coast to European tours and the heat was on to get them into the studio. The resulting debut, Hold On, sent word that a new Gospel sound had arrived on the scene. It scored loads of positive press and garnered comparisons to classic Southern groups like the Soul Stirrers, while a killer cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, made the blues heads take note.
“With Hold On, we were new to the process and it was a little rushed. We’d just come off a really successful tour backing Jim and the feeling was that we should get something out there to cement the identity of the Sojourners as a stand-alone act. We made the decision to add a band and get the Sojourner stank in the mix as part of our identity and as a way of reaching out beyond the Gospel audience”.
The success of “People Get Ready” as a stepping-stone for the secular was not lost on the boys and mindful that the Lord helps those who help themselves, the self-titled new album has two. Both Gary Davis’ ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’ – a song long associated with the Grateful Dead and Los Lobos “Peace in the Neighborhood”, a tune that references Gospel’s long association with civil rights and social justice, are given The Sojourners treatment which involves dabs of doo wop and r’n’b.
"The debut album was about show casing old school, hardcore Gospel, which is what we’ve always done. Even as we were finishing that one, the idea was in place create a signature sound, which would evolve from that. I believe we have that signature sound on The Sojourners. That doesn’t mean we’ll be standing steady with it. Musically, Sojourners aren’t about holding the course. The core of the music will always be hardcore Gospel but I believe evolution is possible within the genre”.
This evolution would be slower going without the right backing band, so the guys returned to Hold On producer Steve Dawson, he of the slinky,dirty blues guitar licks, to put together an appropriate backing unit. No prize for guessing most of them populated the debut sessions, including the strollin' backline of Geoff Hicks and Keith Lowe on drums and bass respectively and new on board. the vintage soul tones of Mike Kalanj’s Hammond B3 organ.
“ I love the sound of the Hammond B3. It has a special attraction, as it’s a big part of the music I grew up with. Mike’s(Kalanj)’s played in a lot of blues bands and brought his special touch to the recordings.”
The albums’ 11 tracks speak of sin, love, loss, redemption and keeping on, and makes travelling those ancient roads sound fresh and well worth the doing.
“ We’re coming from the celebratory side of Gospel, the uplifting and redemptive, not the preachy side. It’s known in the Vancouver scene that we’re not coming from a judgemental place. That in turn makes the club audience more receptive to what we’re saying”
Sometimes a tad too receptive. Mosely laughingly allows as to how the guys get hit on in a very secular way from time to time.
“ Well, yes, it happens and we handle it by saying Thank you and bless your heart. Bless your heart can mean a lot of things and we leave it at that”.
The Sojourners drops on Tuesday Jan. 19 and its tunes will be showcased to an international audience as the group plays a number of Olympics associated events, beginning with a gig in Surrey B.C. on Valentine’s Day. Then in March it’s off to Netherlands to commune with their large fan base over there, part of a growing European demand for The Sojourners music.
“ The music has a universal appeal and the message can too, if you position it correctly. So far as the Sojourner message, it’s opening up other options to people, putting out other paths in their life. Its working; I’ve had people say to me, If music was like this in church, I’d go every Sunday. They’re saying that because what they’re hearing isn’t like what they thought Gospel would be
Righteous chops aside, The Sojourners have a savvy approach to this career thing. They’re in the tradition of Al Green and Rev.Gary Davis, dudes who brought Gospel into the mainstream with far reaching results, not the least being an influence on many other genres of music. The Sojourners are carving out a niche sound at a time when all kinds of rootsy Americana is coming on strong and they’ve honed in on Gospel as cultural expression rather than religious edict.
Inserting secular covers signify that this is Gospel music with many a nod to roots musics of all kinds. It’s a slippery line to walk and as Sojourners seems to be the only ones strutting it, God bless ‘em for bringing back Gospel with grit.