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Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014

Five Milwaukee Gospel Quartets, One Pabst Theater Stage

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For whatever John Sieger took away spiritually growing up in the Catholic Church, he didn’t take away much musically. The Gregorian chants at his church’s Latin masses were austere and foreboding, little like the welcoming rock ’n’ roll that Sieger gravitated toward. When Sieger first visited one of Milwaukee’s black churches, on the other hand, he identified with the music immediately. “It was so familiar,” he recalls. “There were bass drums, a couple amps, even a P.A. It was like rock ’n’ roll.”

Sieger, of the Milwaukee alt-country group Semi-Twang, has kept close ties with the Milwaukee gospel scene ever since. Occasionally he’ll fill in with The Masonic Wonders, the city’s longest continually performing gospel quartet, but mostly he’s a fan. “The first time I filled in, it was like going back to music school,” Sieger says of his sessions with The Masonic Wonders. “I saw a lot of thrilling stuff, a lot of moving stuff. The four lead singers, they take turns, and there’s one guy who is just riveting. His name is Charles McCullum, and he’s the big daddy. He’s sort of a flawless singer, someone like a Wilson Pickett, who has the power to shake you in your boots. He’s the most powerful singer I’ve ever stood next to, and the other guys are equally good. They’re this talent pool that’s right in the middle of town that frankly puts many people we consider talented a little behind the curve, including myself. That’s not a slight to anybody, but I think anybody who sees it will know it’s real.”

Though many of Milwaukee’s gospel acts perform outside of their churches—The Masonic Wonders, for instance, have played Summerfest and Humboldt Park’s Global Union festival—they have remained largely off the radar for most of the city. Sieger hopes that Friday’s Milwaukee Gospel showcase at the Pabst Theater could help change that.

Co-organized by Sieger as a benefit for Progressive Community Health Centers, which assist primarily poor central city clients on a sliding scale and recently broke ground on a new facility on Lisbon Avenue, the concert will feature five local gospel groups. “We really wanted to focus on traditional quartets,” Sieger explains. “There are great choirs, too, but quartet singing is the thing that really has led to music as we know it. If you listen to rhythm and blues, all that came out of gospel.”

The performers on the bill span generations. The youngest are students in the Victory in Praise Youth Choir. The oldest include two original members of The Masonic Wonders who have been singing with the group since its first shows 57 years ago. In the gospel community, that kind of longevity isn’t unheard of. Another act on the bill, Queens of Harmony, will celebrate its 50th anniversary later this year.

Julia Love Brown has been with Queens of Harmony for more than 30 years. The quartet has changed members and updated its sound over the decades, but the spirit remains the same as it was in 1964. “The Queens started as an a cappella group, and that’s the style we hold closest to our hearts even today,” Brown says. “We have incorporated music into some of our songs, but we make sure we always include at least one true a cappella song into each performance to show what we can do.”

Milwaukee’s gospel community remains incredibly tightknit. Every year each gospel quartet celebrates its anniversary with a show Brown describes as “like a great, big musical, with all the other surrounding groups coming out to support.” With decades of that kind of tradition under their belts, it’s easy to imagine some of the city’s gospel quartets carrying on in perpetuity as new generations come and go, but Brown understands Queens of Harmony probably has an expiration date.

“We’re all kind of at that age now where I don’t know how long we will go on and on,” she says. “There comes a time when I think you can just say, ‘OK, we’ve done our thing, and we’re at the point where we can sit back and have fond memories of what we did.’ The ministry, of course, will go on because we can witness without singing—you can always keep going on through the service of your church. As for Queens of Harmony, though, we’ll keep going for as long as the Lord says we can go on doing what we do.”

The Pabst Theater hosts Milwaukee Gospel with The Masonic Wonders, Victory in Praise Youth Choir, The Genesis Singers, The Sharon Travelers and Queens of Harmony on Friday, Feb. 21. Doors open at 7 p.m.