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Jul. 17, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


FAINT PRAISE

R-J reporter dons the robes and raises his voice with gospel group

Watch the Video

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Click on the photos to enlarge them...

Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan, right, and House of Blues gospel coordinator Sylvia St. James wave to the crowd at the conclusion of a recent Sunday Gospel Brunch at the Mandalay Bay House of Blues, during which Levitan led the crowd in singing a gospel song.
Photo by Samantha Clemens.


Levitan had at least half the crowd standing up and working off the calories they added at the venue's all-you-can-eat buffet.


Jesse Gaston, center, accompanies Levitan on "Jesus Loves Me" as Michael Gaston, left, checks his messages. This rehearsal, at a baptist church, doesn't go well.
Photo by John Gurzinski.


Gastons singer Eddie Gaston, left, eyes his replacement with suspicion as Michael Gaston, right, helps Levitan suit up.
Photo by Samantha Clemens.


Levitan, center, asks for his aching throat to heal during the pre-performance prayer circle.
Photo by Samantha Clemens.

 

Music producer Michael Lowery sits silently in a pew at New Light Missionary Baptist Church on Lawry Avenue. He has just witnessed my rehearsal with the gospel group the Gastons, who are allowing me to sing lead on one of their songs at the weekly House of Blues Sunday Gospel Brunch.

I'm not a bad singer. I held my own (sort of) as an Elvis impersonator in Steve Connolly's show at Fitzgeralds. And when I'm drunk and you ask nicely, I can do Axl Rose justice. But "Jesus Loves Me," a Christian hymn penned in the early 1860s, requires some serious Stevie Wonder-ful flourishes.

 

"Allow me to be transparent here," Lowery finally says.

Not many good reviews begin this way.

"When I see you doing that, it seems fabricated and contrived," he says.

This may explain why pianist Jesse Gaston rolled his eyes and backup vocalist Michael Gaston turned to his brother, Eddie, the lead vocalist, and asked, "Steve Martin, right?"

The Gastons are a group of 10 singing family members and friends formed 35 years ago by Las Vegas pastor Almary Gaston and the late Lash Melton of the Church Rocking Meltonettes.

"My grandmother raised us in church," Michael Gaston, 40, told me earlier. "We went to church so much, it was like, 'I can't wait to get older, because I'm not gonna go to church anymore.'

"But what she put in us is still in us."

Gaston, who began singing gospel at age 4, earns his living by supervising downtown street sweepers for the city of Las Vegas.

"We're not in music to make money," he says, explaining that the few hundred dollars the Gastons make from their House of Blues appearances -- at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of every month -- go to church-related charities.

"It's just a great hobby," Gaston says. "Some people like building cars. Some people like making choppers. We like praising God."

Some readers accuse me of setting myself up to fail, of not trying as hard as I can. They should confer with my girlfriend. For two solid weeks, she put up with my wailing along to hundreds of repetitions of "Jesus Loves Me." Jesus loved me in the car, in the shower and in my sleep. He was much more in love with me than my girlfriend was during this time.

"That's not the song you're going to do," says Sylvia St. James, Los Angeles-based talent coordinator for the House of Blues gospel program. She's calling three short days before my debut.

"Even with experienced gospel singers, I tell them not to try a ballad unless they can throw down and leave blood on that stage," St. James says.

Word of my bloodless rehearsals had reached the top banana.

My new song is "This Little Light of Mine," an uptempo spiritual favored by the civil rights movement.

"It's more rock 'n' roll," St. James explains, trying to be nice.

The change is a relief to the Gastons, because it's an easier song. Ditto my 87-year-old Jewish grandmother in Delray Beach, Fla., who had issues with my original number.

"Corey, that was very nice," she said after I sang "Jesus Loves Me" over the phone. "But couldn't you replace Jesus with Moses?" (I told her I'd run it by my new band mates.)

At the same time I receive my new song, however, I also receive the first tingling of what my doctor confirms is a sinus infection. Even in the impossibly short time I have to rehearse, I'm unable to. The lowest notes of "This Little Light of Mine" elude my throbbing vocal cords.

Canceling is not an option. St. James is flying in just for this gig, where she will also be the featured singer.

"Maybe you can do a Springsteen song," a friend suggests the night before, when my throat feels like a steady drip of Blair's Sudden Death hot sauce.

I arrive at the House of Blues with my grocery bag of Chloraseptic, Sucrets and Tylenol, and I consider requesting to pull an Ashlee Simpson and lip-sync. Of course, I would have to jot that request down on my little reporter's pad, because that's how I'm communicating. I can't afford to waste the little bit of voice still available to me.

St. James and the Gastons help outfit me in a gospel robe, then invite me into a prayer circle backstage. While enveloped, I flash back to some advice from a New Light volunteer who identified herself as Linda P.

"Ask Jesus to come into your heart to help you sing this song like it should be sung," she told me during one of the rehearsals.

I asked if she thought Jesus would bother entering the heart of an agnostic Jew with Buddhist tendencies.

"Why wouldn't he?" Linda asked. "He'll go anywhere he's welcome."

I remain in the wings as the air slowly fills with the aroma of waffles and skillet-baked rosemary cornbread, and the electricity of the Gastons' renditions of "Can't Nobody Love Me Like Jesus" and "We Welcome Your Holy Spirit."

"We've got a special guest today, and I want to put your hands together," St. James announces. "We want you to welcome Corey Gaston!"

One Gaston has actually swapped his place onstage for a seat in the audience.

"I gotta see this for myself!" drummer Ronnie Gaston exclaimed as Eddie commandeered his kit.

When I walk onstage to take the wireless microphone from St. James, something strange occurs. And I'm not just talking about gospel getting its very own Vanilla Ice. I'm stating, 100 percent for real, that my pain completely vanishes and my throat delivers every note I request of it.

By the third verse, I'm leaping off the 8-foot stage, not unlike Bono in U2's career-making 1985 Live Aid performance.

OK, fine, I'm slowly lowering myself (and I worked it out with the sound guy beforehand). But the crowd is loving it. Around 100 people feed off my energy, rising off their chairs and waving their hands. One woman gives me a giant hug. And, I can't be sure, but I think I may have accidentally healed someone in a corner table by the all-you-can-eat buffet.

"Today, you had an anyhow praise," St. James tells me afterward. "That means you praised God anyhow. Even though everything was coming against you, you still went out there with all the stops out."

My miraculous recovery makes me realize why Marc "Lord, I'm a Christian tonight" Cohn wrote "Walking in Memphis."

Of course, there were 100 other people in the hall, and a lot of them appeared slightly confused -- until the end of the show, when St. James revealed me as a reporter.

"Yes, we're really glad she did that," said a House of Blues spokesman.

Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.


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COREY LEVITAN
FEAR AND LOAFING


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