For roots-gospel trio the Sojourners, celebrating a homecoming after spending months away from Vancouver is going to be a tad bittersweet.
For some, it will be a tough pill to swallow, but elder statesman Ron Small, the 72-year-old veteran and travelling companion to singers Will Sanders and Marcus Mosely, will not be part of the trio’s CD release celebration at St. James Hall on Friday night.
“He went through a major, major surgery, and he got through it,” Sanders said on a recent gloriously sunny afternoon by the beach in West Vancouver. “He’s doing much better now. He’s on the mend. He has a real strong constitution, so we’re not worried about him coming back.”
While Small is recovering from the operation that will keep him away from the stage for the next several months, the Sojourners have recruited Khari McClelland, a fresh-faced 36-year-old Sanders and Mosely affectionately call “our Sojourner in-training.”
Originally from Detroit, McClelland made his way to the West Coast six years ago, where he started singing with different a cappella gospel groups. A fan of the trio he is now a part of, McClelland says he had the opportunity to share the stage with the Sojourners three or four years ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival and always looked up to them.
“I think there was a mutual admiration for each other,” McClelland says. “Ron wasn’t feeling well, and they needed someone to fulfil the role that he was playing, and I just feel really fortunate to be the person to fill that role right now.”
Being half Small’s age, McClelland admits the shoes he has to fill are pretty big indeed.
“Absolutely,” McClelland says. “Ron’s amazing. It’s just a real honour to learn what it is that these gentlemen are doing.”
The Sojourners’ self-titled sophomore album has already garnered some hefty praise the world over, and it has lead the trio to tour extensively across Europe over the past few months, as well as be a part of the Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Project, which performed in North Vancouver during the Cultural Olympiad.
But although the album has been out for several months, the Sojourners’ busy schedule forced them to delay the official CD release show in Vancouver.
“We looked at a couple of possible dates [around the time of the release in January],” Sanders says. “But every date that came up was conflicting with something we already had obligations for. It was hard trying to find a date.”
In a way, the trio’s forthcoming performance at St. James Hall could be seen as more of a homecoming show than a CD release show.
“That’s a good way of looking at it,” Sanders says. “We’ve been on tour, we’re just getting back, and we’re coming home to showcase our album.”
And what an album it is.
On the self-titled followup to their 2007 debut Hold On, the Sojourners cover everything from the Golden Gate Quartet to Los Lobos, delivering their signature roots-gospel with Hammond B3 organ flourishes and more than few crunchy riffs courtesy of producer and guitarist extraordinaire Steve Dawson.
“He just kills it,” Mosely says.
The soul and uplift of gospel classics such as By and By and Brother Moses Smote the Water meet the earthiness of roots and blues with glorious results.
“This album is a continuation,” Mosely says. “Hold On was a combination of roots and traditional gospel music touching on themes like the civil rights movement and justice issues — Eyes on the Prize, Clean Up, People Get Ready — which were a tip of the hat to that whole period.
>“On this second album, we wanted to get closer to what we heard in church growing up, with the addition of the Hammond B3 organ and a little bit more of that barn-burner, hand-clapping kind of music — a very spirited kind of music.”
Mosely, 57, was born and raised in the panhandle area of Texas — “It’s a lot like the Prairies up here,” he says with a laugh.
His family worked as farmers, and they were very poor. He and his mom attended “storefront churches,” where they would sing and praise.
“I’ve often been quoted as saying, ‘Black people don’t go to church, we have church,’” he says. “That means it’s a full involvement. You give your whole being to a service.
“I’m from a Pentecostal background — we’re the shouters and the dancers and that kind of thing.
“This was pre-civil rights, and it was what we needed to give us the strength to face what was going on every day in the south.”
Sanders, 60, was born and raised in Alexandria, La., where his family founded a church that still stands in the same spot, though it has become quite a bit bigger, he says.
His family consisted of generations of preachers and deacons who were very active in the church, and Sanders idolized his mom, a woman who always sang and who, Sanders says, could have been a star.
“Her heart and her soul were in the church and the community, so that’s where she stayed,” Sanders says.
“But I still hear her voice today. When I’m singing, I channel her spirit.
“Listen to Another Soldier Gone and you’ll hear it,” Mosely says.