One thing about not going to Merlefest is getting the updates from friends all weekend reminding me of what I’m missing. By all accounts, what I missed on Friday was Mike Farris burning up the Watson stage. Thankfully, he brought his Roseland Rhythm Revue to the Raleigh suburb of Clayton on Saturday night and raised the roof of an old school building now known as The Clayton Center. The last time I saw Farris he was touring his Soul of America show, which while good, left me feeling like I didn’t really get to hear him. This time around the set was focused on his gospel material so we got to hear the soul of Mike Farris, doing what he does best.
Opening with a moving “Purple Rain”, Farris set the bar pretty high, but he and his six piece band kept it up all night, sharing with us two solid hours of righteous, uplifting soul music. A few numbers in, as he introduced “The Power of Love”, Farris stressed to us that his latest record is called “Shine…for ALL the people, not just some of the people.” He took all of us people to church while still making it feel like a Saturday night by segueing into Stevie Wonder’s “Living For the City”. Next up was a dedication to his father with the gorgeous “Mercy Now”, urging us to sing along, “we can all show a little mercy now.” While Farris has won Dove and Grammy awards for his gospel records, his is not the type that is preachy or overbearing; Mike Farris sings about love, faith, and mercy, in a way that reaches down to your soul while getting you up on your feet, and everyone is invited to join in. As one woman in the crowd shouted between songs, “I can’t sit down!”
Following “The Lord Will Make A Way Somehow”, he got us on our feet again with Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles to Go”, then slowed things down with a beautiful rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. As the band played softly, he said a few words about Prince which introduced a powerful take on “The Cross”. I can’t think of a better Prince song for Farris to play alongside his own gospel material and hope it remains in his sets. Both backup singers, Cristina Rae and Kim Mont, shone, with each taking a verse, and guitarist Steve Roper taking one of his many great solos of the night. To finish up the set, Farris took us “back to kindergarten” leading a singalong with “This Little Light of Mine”.
Of course he couldn’t leave without one more, and he and the band came back to the stage with a medley that included a couple Sly and The Family Stone verses preceding Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’”. Early in the evening he apologized that he was only at about 40% because of a throat infection, but we otherwise wouldn’t have known it. Given the barnburner of a show he put on, his 40% puts many other artist’s 100% to shame. When all was said and done, the sign hanging on Paul Brown’s keyboard summed up the night, and Mike Farris’ mission, in one word – love.