Grammy Award-winning Le’Andria Johnson returns with a vocal vengeance on The Experience, a live performance at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. Her oversized voice—more than twice the size of her sinewy frame—possesses the two-ness, the combination of ecstacy and sorrow, that is characteristic of the best gospel singers.
The first half of the program feels autobiographical. Johnson wears her heart on her vocal cords as she states some important truths about herself. At the outset, on “I’m Living,” the singer asserts that she likes all kinds of music, but “it don’t mean a thing if it can’t carry you through.” As if to drive home the point, her musicians give the track a hard-hitting rock soundscape. On “My Story Continues,” Johnson uses tough words to affirm that she isn’t going away, even if “they never thought I would make it this far.” During “Complicated,” Johnson sings that she has cried so many nights, but has overcome the pain.
The album’s tour de force is “Revival Fire Fall.” Johnson unleashes a full arsenal of gospel embellishment, including clenched teeth moans and gut-wrenching shouts, to create a song that possesses the otherworldly intensity of Butterfly’s final aria, “Con Onor Muore.”
Having expunged the weight from her shoulders, Johnson proceeds to make the second half of the program a concert of traditional gospels and hymns. She eases into it with a relaxed version of the Caravans’ hit, “Lord Keep Me Day By Day.” The “Hymn Medley” features chestnuts such as “I Surrender All,” sung to organ accompaniment.
The “Church Medley” is the real crowd-rouser. Johnson opens with the Pentecostal classic “I’m A Soldier” sung with the gusto of the Gay Sisters. I anticipated the audience would put a coda on the medley by singing the “Yes Lord” chant, but if they did, it was not captured on tape. Speaking of the Gay Sisters, Johnson sings “God Will Take Care Of You,” the hymn made famous by the “singing sweethearts” in 1951, though she gives it Aretha’s more nuanced and deliberate 1972 reading. Johnson's award-winning single, “Jesus,” concludes the concert.
On The Experience, Le’Andria Johnson demonstrates why she is among the most amazing female voices in gospel music today. The project is also available in a deluxe edition that includes a DVD of the performance.