By the time the down-and-dirty-voiced blues vocalist has tested her equipment and launches into her first number, the blonde down front in tight jeans and a spangly belt is bobbing her head in time to the music, clearly ready to surrender to the music. Others in the audience tap their toes ever so slightly, or just close their eyes and lean back to let the hurts-so-bad tunes ("Every Day I Got the Blues" and "Stormy Monday") wash over them. It could be any smoky joint in any rundown part of town...until you look up and notice the relief carving of the Last Supper hanging over the band.
No roadhouse, this; it's the Lord's house, the sanctuary of the Union Avenue Christian Church, on Union a little north of Delmar. This weekly service, an experiment in relevant worship, is just another foray for a church steeped in the traditions of arts and music. Last year, for example, some congregants took part in a study of Vincent van Gogh's spiritual life and struggles, in conjunction with the major exhibit of his work at the Saint Louis Art Museum. In an environment that open to innovation, why not bring in the blues?
That's what Roger Duncan figured when he hatched the idea a couple of years ago. Roger and his wife Carla, longtime church members, are also longtime fans of blues music. They keep up with local group Patti and The Hitmen, and like to give any blues group a chance. Roger pitched the idea of a weekly service incorporating blues music to Union Avenue's pastor, Dr. Mike Simpson, before Simpson even arrived to assume pastoral duties.
"We started talking about it long before I came here," recalls Simpson, "and it just made sense to try it. Blues is the indigenous music of St. Louis, coming even before the great jazz of Miles Davis."
The blues have another special appeal, too, to the kinds of people Simpson and Duncan envisioned coming to the worship services. "So many of the contemporary worship services that are popular today are so praise-oriented, with people clapping and singing and waving their hands, talking about how Jesus will make everything all right," Simpson says. "The blues have a special way to speak to people with broken hearts, people who might be flat broke, people who walk through our doors dealing with all kinds of life issues. We're trying to offer an altogether realistic appraisal of life in metro St. Louis."
The evening unfolds in three "sets": from 5 to 5:30 the band (usually blues, but sometimes jazz) plays, with snapping drums, guitar licks, maybe a harmonica strain or two; then, from 5:30 to 6:15, the worship service takes place, with readings (not always overtly religious), a message offered by Dr. Simpson, and an offering that seems more like a tip a literal "passing of the hat." After Simpson's reflection, he turns the tables on the congregation and demonstrates another unconventional quality of the service: "Anyone have anything to say about those thoughts? Any questions you have, or anyone who disagrees with what I said?" Somewhat surprisingly, there often is feedback offered, and sometimes a lively exchange follows.
"There have been times when I've really struck a chord or a nerve with someone," Simpson says, laughing. "But the whole point is to provide something real to people for their lives. I imagine the perception that the average person has is that what's going on inside a church is not relevant to them in a way they can use every day."
Set three: a free, communal dinner from 6:15-7, in the church's fellowship hall, open to all who want to attend. And then, it's back out into the blues-giving world for everyone, from the seminary student who has so many other responsibilities on Sunday morning that he can't really unwind until Sunday night to the practicing Catholic who comes here because he is in love with the music.
The Rhythm and Roots worship service is, in the grand tradition of working musicians, taking a short break, a summer hiatus, but will return in the early fall. Growing the weekly attendance is the next goal; Simpson figures the service is "the best-kept secret in St. Louis." Duncan is contemplating a few special events over the summer, perhaps a concert or two outside in nearby Ivory Perry Park, where young Rodney McAllister was mauled to death by stray dogs not long ago. It's a neighborhood that could use some healing, and he figures maybe the blues could help.
After all, what is the church for if not to give you courage for the journey?