Moved by the spirit

It’s not that unusual to catch the faint strains of gospel music wafting through downtown Asheville, late on a Sunday morning. But one hardly expects to find that jubilant sound coming from a nightclub — unless the venue happens to be Tressa’s Downtown Jazz and Blues.

Gospel music, good food (how does baked eggs picante and Cajun-style grits sound?) and lots of plain old fun is just what you’ll find at the club’s monthly Sunday Gospel Brunch.

“I always thought if I had a club, one event I’d like to produce would be a Gospel Sunday,” says co-owner Tressa Thornton.

The club Thornton dreamed of having is now a little more than a year old — a cool, upscale place modeled after clubs that she and partner Terri Abernathy have frequented (and worked in) in New Orleans and Charleston.

Tressa’s has been presenting gospel brunches for five months now — inspired by similar events in the Big Easy (notably at the legendary House of Blues), and by Thornton’s own love of gospel sounds (the gospel tent, she says, was always her first stop at her native city’s famed Jazz and Heritage Festival).

So far, with the help of Happyland Records’ Steve Mann, Tressa’s Gospel Brunch has featured several upbeat, dynamic acts off the national gospel circuit, including Freddie Branch and the Singing Stars and The Devotions. Branch and the Stars will bring their vibrant, stirring “soul gospel” to the next brunch, scheduled for Sept. 20.

Branch hails from Louisburg, N.C., where he owns an automobile body shop. His singular personality — and his joyous spirit — shine in the group’s music, which can be heard on their most recent CD, Something Got A Hold On Me (Happyland Records, 1997). Branch’s soul gospel spans a, well, soulful mix of genres, and the rhythm moves from slow and bluesy to fast and rocking. Add to that the band’s electric matching suits (at the last brunch, they were bright yellow), and you’ve got yourself a show to remember.

Thornton admires the gospel bands’ music and showmanship, but it’s their effect on audiences that really excites her.

“[They] do reach out and get the audience involved,” she enthuses.

Ideally, Tressa’s would like to find a local band to play the brunches. “The original concept, which we haven’t achieved yet, was to find a local church with a black gospel group and to have them do a show once a month,” Thornton explains.

So far, though, logistical problems have gotten in the way. Some gospel groups won’t perform in bars, and even those that do would have to rush straight to the club from church, a schedule unacceptable to many groups. “It would have to be the right thing for the club and the right thing for the church,” says Thornton.

Meanwhile, the literal flavor of Tressa’s Gospel Brunch comes courtesy of Christina Hughes, for many years one of Manhattan’s top chefs. She lays out a sumptuous Southern-style buffet, to which guests help themselves. A recent menu included shrimp-and-sausage file gumbo, braised leeks with jalapeno, and roasted pears with amaretto sauce.

An added plush touch is that, rather than paying a cover charge up front, guests are presented with a bill after dining and enjoying the entertainment. The staff feels that this gives people a chance to know what they’re paying for and takes away some of the “bar” ambiance.

“We’ve never had someone come up and say it wasn’t worth it,” reports Abernathy.

So far, the response has been great, with plenty of dancing and active participation. The brunch is not a big money-maker, though. In fact, Tressa’s is barely breaking even on the event. But money is not the motivation here: It’s the spirit that counts — of the food, of the music, of the wonderfully diverse audience.

Thornton is highly enthusiastic on that score. “Our clientele is so mixed — gay, straight, black, white — and [at] every gospel brunch, we have a smattering from every group. The music just brings people together. It sounds kind of corny, but it’s true.” Abernathy echoes this sentiment, adding that the brunch literally, “[reaches] out and brings people together who probably wouldn’t be united at most Asheville events.

As a result, adds club Manager Sharon Schott, a deeply resonant spirituality pervades these events.

Thornton agrees: “When you look over the whole room and there are all these beautiful people … caught up in this gospel music, and there’s this exchange going on and the music is just carrying the spirit throughout the room — it’s those moments that are why I want to do this.”

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