The Sojourners (from left): Ron Small, Will Sanders, Marcus Mosely: Whatever it takes to get the message across.

The Gospel Truth, Like No Other Gospel Truth
Nothing’s out of bounds stylistically when the Sojourners get down to getting the Word out…

By David McGee

THE SOJOURNERS
Black Hen Music

Ron Small, Marcus Mosely and Will Sanders—hailing respectively from Chicago, IL; Ralls, Texas; and Alexandria, Louisiana—have made Vancouver their home base in recent years, and it is from there that they are making such a glorious noise in the name of their Lord. Although they have worked in and around the gospel world for a half-century (Small even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, when his gospel group, The Fabulous Pearls, made the bill), the trio came together at the behest of Canadian music icon Jim Byrnes, who hired them to provide some gospel oomph to his blues on his 2006 album, House of Refuge. Their sound was so captivating and natural that Byrnes not only gave them their group name but helped enlist his producer, Steve Dawson, to steer the newly formed trio’s debut album, 2007’s Hold On. Three years later comes a second Sojourners album, harder edged than Hold On—thanks mostly to Dawson’s stinging, rock- and blues-based guitar work and the solid, pulsating rhythm section of Geoff Hicks (drums) and Keith Lowe (bass)—but still leaning on a traditional gospel framework in style and repertoire. With Mike Kalanj sitting in on B-3 and Wurlitzer on several cuts, and Dawson adding atmospheric touches via the variety of sonics available to him on six- and 12-strings, slide guitar, Wiessenborn, mandotar, National and pedal steel guitars, the Sojourners advance an invigorating sound: everything from classic soul to brittle rock ‘n’ roll to pure gospel to blues to country, as they stay in a classic gospel group harmony groove. It’s not like anything you’re likely to encounter on the modern gospel circuit, or, for that matter, in any other gospel era. Makes you wish Elvis Presley were still with us, because he, a dominant gospel singer if ever there was one, would surely be energized by the Sojourners’ dynamic approach—and you can bet he would dig the way Ron Small opens his heart so fully and unabashedly in petitioning the Lord on a spare, soulfully reverent version of one of Elvis’s own gospel landmarks, Doris Akers’s “Lead Me Guide Me,” this one enhanced atmospherically by Dawson’s eerie tremelo guitar ruminations and further blessed by the Sojourners sending up a smooth gospel harmony sound a la the Stamps Quartet that served Elvis so well on his version. Even Mahalia Jackson, staunch traditionalist though she was, would likely welcome the Sojourners’ inventive approach to the Word—whatever it takes to get the message across, at least within reason.


The Sojourners, ‘Nobody Can Turn Me Around,’ the Mighty Clouds of Joy classic done Impressions style as filtered through the Sojourners’ sensibility. With producer Steve Dawson on the National Steel, Keith Lowe on bass, Geoff Hicks on drums

What’s within reason? Try the deep groove of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” that Rev. Gary Davis classic. Over a bruising, shambling rhythm, Mosely, Smalls and Sanders raise their voices in smooth, keening harmonies, as Dawson sends up his own complementary howl via Hawaiian lap steel and distortion-heavy electric guitar, while Kalanj maintains a steady, chording wail on the B-3. Going out on a high note, the trio speaks exuberantly of salvation in an album closing rendition of “By and By,” which is some kind of fusion of gospel and jug band blues, with Kalanz’s rich organ backdrop, over which Dawson crafts bright, buoyant Weissenberg riffs before Jesse Zubot jumps in with a feisty, serpentine mandolin workout. These rootsy touches are impressive enough, but there’s nothing quite like the album opening “Nobody Can Turn Me Around,” an overt homage to the classic, soaring Impressions sound (even though the song is a Mighty Clouds of Joy monument), right down to the rich, familiar, high-pitched harmony blend, with Dawson adding some edge to the electric guitar support that might be right in the pocket with what one Curtis Mayfield would fashion for this number. (Note: on their debut, the Sojourners covered “People Get Ready,” so there’s precedent at work here.) Curtis would almost certainly nod approval of the Sojourners venturing beyond gospel, too, to incorporate the socially conscious message railing against a deteriorating culture and pleading for divine intervention, as they do in Los Lobos’ “The Neighborhood,” here delivered with a pronounced stomp and slow boiling intensity along with some angry, sputtering electric guitar protestations from Dawson. Not the least of the treats here is an infectious, classic soul romp through Motherlode’s aspirational, lovestruck strivings served up in musical form in the one-hit wonder group’s 1969 hit, “When I Die,” in a treatment that hews closely to the original’s lush, soaring arrangement. (Trivia buffs take note: “When I Die” entered the charts on 8-9-69, the day of the Manson Family murders.)


The Sojourners is available at www.amazon.com

Other Voices…
on The Sojourners

At www.soultracks.com, Peggy Oliver offered an informed review of The Sojourners’ new album. Here’s an excerpt that provides interesting background on the trio’s personal histories. Her full review can beaccessed at http://www.soultracks.com/the-sojourners-the-sojourners-review.

The Sojourners' brand of roots gospel has attracted a small yet loyal following who truly appreciate genuine music making regardless of faith and genre. Mosely, Sanders and Small have also built strong reputations as veteran members of the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir. They regularly tour with Byrnes and have shared the stage with other prolific musicians such as Dr. John, The Blind Boys of Alabama and The Campbell Brothers. Individually, these gentlemen are highly seasoned talents who have graced music and theater stages for over fifty years.

Like Byrnes, Mosely, Sanders and Small were all U.S. citizens who established residency and successful careers in Vancouver. The catalyst of The Sojourners—Texas native Mosely—is an accomplished gospel, folk and jazz vocalist who has traveled to Europe, Asia and Africa. But his real passion is to educate the public on gospel music's strong legacy. Besides founding the Good Noise Vancouver Gospel Choir, Mosely and his wife Gail Suderman started Gospel Music Productions. Their workshops for GMP incorporate music with the history of slavery and the civil rights movement in North America. Mosely also created a theatrical production entitled It's Time to Sing, which chronicles gospel music past and present. It's Time to Sing earned two Jessie (the Jessie Richardson awards for achievements in the Vancouver theater community) nominations.


The Sojourners at the Maple Blues Awards 2009, ‘Children, Go Where I Send Thee’

Growing up in Louisiana, Will Sanders' primary passion is singing gospel music. Since he moved to Canada, he has performed with numerous Vancouver-based ensembles including Circle of Voices and Cloud Nine. He also shares the honor with Mosely as a Jessie nominee. Sanders was tapped for a Best Performance nomination for the musical When the Rains Came in 1994.

Ron Small first moved Vancouver in 1960 but has also lived in Toronto, Ontario. The Chicago-born jack of all trades started with The Fabulous Pearls while serving in the military. By winning a talent contest, the vocal group had the honor of performing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958. With a career spanning performing in jazz clubs, television, musical theater and as a vocal coach, Small continues to play a vital part in Vancouver's black history.

Utilizing Steve Dawson, Byrnes' producer from House of Refuge, The Sojourners released their debut, Hold On, a back-to-basics recording without the studio thrills. The 1997 disc that captured the spirit of old-school gospel was nominated for several regional Canadian awards. From the soulful signature hit by The Impressions, "People Get Ready," to the jazz swing of "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb," The Sojourners struck an immediate chord within underground gospel circles in the U.S. and Canada.