After Sunday’s dark and stormy opening at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Irma Thomas let her light shine during an afternoon performance at the Gospel Tent.
“Yes, it’s not bad weather,” Thomas told her less-than-capacity but enthusiastic audience. “It’s just wet. And the sun is shining up above those clouds. We’re going to have a good time this afternoon.”
And the people did have a good time. For upbeat songs, they rose to clap and move with the feel-good gospel beat. Audience members included Sunday Blues Tent performer Marcia Ball. Together, Thomas, Ball and Tracy Ball recorded the 1998 trio album, “Sing It!” As for Ball, she couldn’t help but smile and sway as she listened to Thomas, a friend and inspiration. New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott attended Thomas’ gospel show, too.
While time is often unkind to singers, it seems to be on the side of Thomas, who turned 75 this year. Her voice, even after nearly 60 years in music, is remarkably intact. Her Sunday performance wasn’t just beautifully done, it was effectively flawless.
Performing with a pianist, organist, drums, bass and a fine quartet of backup singers, Thomas stayed on the traditional side of gospel. No contemporary rhythm-and-blues gospel for her.
One of her city’s secular musical mainstays, dubbed the “soul queen of New Orleans,” Thomas, like so many soul and R&B singers, grew up in gospel music. Before see recorded local favorites “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart,” “Break-a-Way” and “Wish Someone Would Care,” the teenaged Thomas sang with a Baptist church choir. And in 1993, she released a gospel album, “Walk Around Heaven: New Orleans Gospel Soul.” It’s apparently her only gospel album, a bit surprising given how great she is at gospel.
Thomas is no stranger to Jazz Fest’s Gospel Tent. Her performances there began about 10 years, she told the audience, with a tribute to the New Orleans-born, Chicago-raised gospel star Mahalia Jackson. Eventually, the Jackson tribute evolved into “The Gospel Soul of Irma Thomas,” the singer explained. But she can never forget Jackson, Thomas added, the superb singer who championed gospel music as art of the highest caliber. A rousing performance of the spiritual, “Didn’t It Rain,” followed.
“I Found the Answer,” another song identified with Jackson, showcased the golden warmth and conviction in Thomas’ voice and delivery.
“I found the answer, I learned to pray,” she sang. “The sun is shining for me each day.”
“How Great Thou Art” began with an extended piano intro played by a wonderful gospel musician, Dwight Franklin. Thomas joined in for some intimate voice and piano only music making. The performance grew in majesty, inspiring standing ovations during the song’s powerful climaxes.
Lasting less than hour, Thomas’ 2016 Gospel Tent appearance was brief but thoroughly satisfying. She’s always a New Orleans treasure. Rain or no rain, the audience obviously was glad to be there.