Although they’ve been together for a few decades, Take 6 remain a unique outfit. There are other prominent a cappella acts, but none quite like this set of Alabama natives. Nothing compares to the group’s six expert vocalists as they seamlessly transition between, jazz, soul, and funk, sometimes dividing into separate vocal and rhythm sections, and, at others, layering multiple harmonies across one another. Stepping to the stage, the group brings only microphones, a pitch pipe, and a few percussion instruments. With just these minimal elements, they magically create the full sound of both a band and choir. On this night, it was a little like the story of The Little Drummer Boy played out with human voices instead of drums. While Mary Mary would later transport the crowd to a Sunday morning Pentecostal church service that just happened to take place during Christmastime, Take 6 kicked things off with a bit of Christmas caroling. The group didn’t hesitate to get into the spirit, wishing the Southern California gathering a merry Christmas on their second song. Then they broke into “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” doo-wop style, followed by rousing renditions of “Hark! The Harold Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Take 6’s set-closing encore of “Mary” — the traditional Black gospel song — provided the perfect lead-in to Mary Mary’s gospel set. The song allowed the sextet’s singers to let loose and testify. While such individualism was a little out of place next to Take 6’s more altruistic approach, they had fun with it, preparing the audience for the beautiful ruckus Mary Mary had in store.
Mary Mary took the stage accompanied by a young-looking five-piece band and three equally youthful female backing vocalists. They opened with “’Tis the Season” from their new holiday CD, then quickly jumped into “Shackles (Praise You),” the pop single from Thankful. After singing “Merry Little Christmas” and the SoCal appropriate “California Christmas,” ‘twas the season for church. The group’s “service” began with “Believer,” a straight-out testimony in song. There was no preacher in the house, but that didn’t matter — Tina and Erica Campbell (AKA Mary Mary) know how to preach. Tina followed the song with a story about how God spared her life in a car accident, while Erica described the time their family home caught fire — not coincidentally — when everyone was away from the house. Just as fire-and-brimstone preachers sometimes need time to warm up, Mary Mary took a few songs to look and sound truly comfortable. The stuffy atmosphere of this opera house/performing arts center might have had something to do with the initial chill. It wasn’t a down-home church, nor was it an intimate club. It was the kind of place where people usually sit and clap politely. With private boxes stacked three floors high on each side, this wasn’t no church; it was a cathedral. But by the time the sisters got to “Call Him Jesus,” the group was in full throttle, foot-stomping gospel mode. Although the track is drawn from the new Christmas album, you would not intuitively know it to be a holiday song. It’s much closer to what James Cleveland used to do with his choirs — a tune that lets God’s message blow like a mighty hurricane. Speaking of destructive power, during “Call Him Jesus” Tina pounded her tambourine so hard, it exploded. The little, round, metallic pieces and broken skins soon littered the ornate stage, and she had to borrow another tambourine from one of her backing singers (I wonder if that singer was reluctant to give it up — especially after she watched Tina treat her tambourine like Pete Townshend did guitars). The women of Mary Mary have deep church-music roots, but they know their way around R&B music history, too. One standout, titled “Yesterday,” was a beautiful throwback to old-school soul balladry, and the act closed with “Heaven,” a song which placed heaven-bound lyrics to a Motown beat. If Take 6’s smooth opening was the calm, Mary Mary’s rowdy set was the musical storm, and, by the time it ended, the audience was drained. Christmas can be the season for quiet reflection or loud partying. With this show, we got both in one memorable package.