Gospel is sometimes stereotyped as holy-rolling music for old folk and the chronically sanctified who can’t seem to hold a conversation without dragging the name of the Lord into it. The Twin Cities scene has a few artists who are doing something to change that perception. Among them are the Steeles, a popular singing family who’ve made an annual tradition of doing a Christmas show that celebrates Christ’s birth with rocking reverence; and F. Darnell Davis and the Remnant, who had their CD release event at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, drawing the faithful—all ages, teens to elders—to a worship and raise the proverbial joyful noise to a funky backbeat. There’s also the manifestly blessed vocalist Tonia Hughes, whose 2009 release I’m Ready Now follows suit, breaking with age-old convention to give time-honored praise.
Hughes, no stranger to Twin Cities audiences, is highly regarded for performances with the Grammy-nominated Excelsior Chorale Ensemble, in the Minneapolis Gospel Sound, and in Black Nativity at Penumbra Theatre. She recently starred with Greta Oglesby and Yolande Bruce as part of Sanford Moore’s My First Loves at the Capri Theater. Hughes also has worked with Tremaine Hawkins, Paris Bennett, and Mary J. Blige.
I’m Ready Now is grade-A, R&B-drenched pop delivering a Christian message. It’s one helluva combination—if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s a uniquely powerful sound that Tonia Hughes absolutely owns. She’s got fine accompaniment, too. Among her stellar backup are Stokley Williams of Mint Condition and Joto, F. Darnell Davis, and her husband, Brian Kendrick, of F. Darnell Davis and the Remnant. All three contribute to the songwriting, with Davis and Kendrick producing.
“God Alone” is an excellent lead-in, with kind of a Stevie Wonder feel to it: jazzy, pumped up, and showcasing Hughes’s magnificent voice to telling effect. “Extravagant Praise,” fueled by Brian Kendrick’s pile-driver drumming, kicks good and heavy with Hughes doing vocal somersaults. I’m Ready Now goes on like that, song after song just nailing it.
Hughes’s first album, Just For Hymn, also has a guest star: pianist Billy Steele (yes, of the Steeles) is her lone accompaniment. It’s that good old-fashioned, traditional style beautifully done. With just Hughes and Steele providing a stripped-down sound, you get to really appreciate the simple, profoundly moving beauty and grace of gospel music. You can also hear the roots of R&B, and see where the genius of greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles (not to mention countless singers they influenced) was spawned.
It isn’t only hard to come across a talent the caliber of Tonia Hughes—it’s almost impossible. In the Twin Cities, known across the country as a wellspring of phenomenal music makers, Hughes is among the very best. Her voice, clear as spring water, powerful as a kick to the cut, is superbly emotive. If you’re not a Christian, don’t worry about it: God won’t mind if you listen along and enjoy every note of Hughes’s flawless offerings.