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Stellar sounds

Gospel awards show retains spirit despite secular invasion

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Atlanta Civic Center, Sept. 12 -- Attending the 17th annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards was like going to a mega-church on Sunday morning. The lines of cars and buses streaming into the Atlanta Civic Center parking lot were endless. The spaces filled up quickly, forcing attendees to park miles away.

Inside, a praise team was warming people up to the spirit. In this case, Kurt Carr and his singers played that role. Normally everything would continue in spite of technical foul-ups. But this was a television taping. One electronic glitch forced Carr and company to do their lively opener, "In the Sanctuary," all over again. But it didn't really matter, because the buzz was supposed to focus on the many non-gospel stars making appearances at the event.

Oh, look, there's R&B singer Faith Evans smacking on a piece of gum. And isn't that Sean "Puffy" -- uh, "P. Diddy" -- Combs a few seats over? Doesn't Chris Tucker look like a fine choirboy in that blue suit? Aren't the members of Destiny's Child such sophisticated church ladies in their pink lace gowns?

All of that secular star power did warrant a few double takes. But the gospel artists were capable of working their own magic, encompassing mainstream forms like hip-hop and R&B along with the traditional. Chief among them was contemporary gospel artist Tonex. Dressed in a mesh black tank top that showed off his lean physique and leather, patched jeans, Tonex raised eyebrows with an electrifying performance and energetic stage moves that put Usher and Michael Jackson to shame.

Tonex is among the spiritual music's Generation Next. Not satisfied to simply use the catchy hip-hop beats and R&B sounds that have boosted gospel's popularity among younger fans, he incorporates otherworldly tools to spread his message. Tonex's next album, 02, is due out this April on Jive records, the label power behind 'N Sync. There's a concept video that accompanies the CD, along with a related DVD film. Tonex is also planning a tour and collaborations with artists from the mainstream world. He ultimately wants to take his high-energy sermon to MTV's Total Request Live.

Other gospel powerhouses were equally engaging. Donnie McClurkin, the show's co-host, beguiled with smooth tranquility. Gospel hip-hopper Kirk Franklin offered a slight surprise. Gone were his hair and his trademark foot-stomping beats. He laid into his usual call-and-response accompanied by an orchestra and an angelic-sounding choir dressed in white. The effect was oddly beautiful. CeCe Winans fiddled with a heavy choker that appeared to be bothering her neck -- though she never let it impede her vocal stride, finally managing to yank it off.

The top-billed Destiny's Child lived up to the hype, they're voices ringing sweetly in the a capella medley "Jesus Loves Me/Amen." The night belonged to Child member Michelle Williams, her upcoming gospel album getting a secret plug as she kept pace with spiritual legend Shirley Caesar in a duet.

In between the musical numbers, several statuettes were handed out -- and Donnie McClurkin received a good many of them. But this was an awards show for musicians spreading the message from above. As award recipient Albertina Walker pointed out, the highest accolades weren't meant for them. "Praise the Lord everybody," she said, "I say praise the Lord everybody!"

The Stellar Gospel Music Awards airs 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, on Fox.

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