Niki Haris returns for her annual Gospel Prayer Meetin’, this time at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater
Those unversed in gospel music might view it as a purely Christian genre: a style of music geared toward praising the Lord and clapping for Jesus. But gospel can speak to everyone, regardless of religion, faith or belief system.
“Everybody has a spirit, and that’s what gospel speaks to, the individual spirit … the goodness of an individual,” said Deborah Walker, presenter of Denver KUVO radio’s “Gospel Train.” Walker will host Niki Haris’ Vail performance, which takes place Sunday at Gerald Ford Amphitheater as part of the 25th anniversary edition of the Vail Jazz Party.
“Some people don’t call it God or Jesus. It’s that individual goodness you’re speaking to,” Walker said. “The music is bringing them into the oneness of what that goodness is.”
Haris herself refers to this simply as “the light.”
“That’s what’s so great about (the Vail Jazz Party gospel performance). It’s the one moment when people let their guard down and open their arms up. People might say, ‘I’m Jewish.’ They might say, ‘I don’t go to church.’ I say, whatever gets you to the light,” Haris said.
Haris has long been a favorite among Vail Jazz audiences. Her Gospel Prayer Meetin’ is typically the first performance to sell out every Labor Day weekend; hence its new location this year at Ford Amphitheater, which has a capacity of 2,650 people.
A backup vocalist for Madonna for a number of years, Haris’ 15-year solo career has brought her to still more global stages, and her recordings, ranging in genre from gospel to pop, R&B and funk, have topped Billboard charts.
“I’m really lucky after doing the celebrity, award-driven pop show stuff, I get to go all over the world and reach people in a deep place,” Haris said. “I get to go to India, Cambodia, Vietnam and do concerts to build non-violent centers. I get to do music that tends to change people’s lives in a way that’s more than just coming to a concert. My music is not just soulful, it’s soul-filled.”
Walker, whose mother was a gospel singer and who herself sang in a church choir, has lived and breathed various forms of gospel music all of her life. Of all the performances she’s hosted or witnessed, she said that Haris possesses a unique ability to reach audiences on an individual level.
“It’s her ability to be who she is and connect with the audience. She gives so much of herself,” Walker said. “I’m not saying that other artists don’t do that, but the way she connects is special. She’s not preachy. She’s not churchy. She’s spirit-filled. She’s speaking to individual people. Even though they might not go to church, their beliefs might be different, everybody loves that good-feel music. Everybody loves to feel good. That’s what Niki brings. That’s what gospel Sunday does. It gives you that feel good spirit.”
Walker said that every year she’s hosted Haris’ Vail show, before the singer steps on stage, she collects all of her band members, which includes a musical army of the Mile Hi Gospel Choir plus nine of the Vail Jazz Party’s top musicians, into a huddle.
“I could be out there talking, talking, talking and they will be back there in a unity of oneness, of prayer, bringing it all together,” Walker said. “Niki always has that moment of holding hands, uniting the musicians together. I think a lot of artists do that. That’s what I was saying … about what gospel is. They might perform or perfect their performance in other genres of music — jazz or R&B — but when they were developing, when they first knew they had talent, it’s because they were able to tap into their inner spirit.”
In general terms, gospel can be described as musicians tapping into this spirit and sending it outward. The experience, according to Haris, is one of both shining and absorbing light.
“It’s so important that everyone be in their own light. People forget they have a light. If we can tap into our light, we can change the world,” Haris said. “If someone wants to be in the light, they’re welcome it. If they don’t want to be in my light, they’d better put some sunglasses on.”