The Gospel According to Ken

Roots Music Canada, David Newland, April 25, 2011 

There is no answer… still I carry on.

~ Ken Whiteley

When does a gospel song not offer an answer? When it’s the Gospel according to Ken.

Blues and gospel veteran, yoga practitioner & meditator Ken Whiteley performs eastern philosophy for Christians and Christian classics for agnostics all with equal ease.

Whiteley’s work walks a fine line at an important time. Music that has any sort of religious overtones is a curiosity on the Canadian roots scene. While there is typically a gospel workshop at folk festivals on Sunday mornings, the long-standing relationship between folk music and faith is sometimes an uneasy one these days.

A recent discussion in an online folk music forum included the suggestion that gospel workshops should include music of all faiths, and offer something for atheists as well.

Meanwhile, some performers who wear their faith on their sleeves – Steve Bell and Jacob Moon leap to mind – seem to be branded that way regardless of their material’s potential for a broader audience.

None of this looks like it’s affecting Ken Whiteley, who manages with ease to be a man of faith in a secular world. And there’s more to that than his immense catalogue of spiritual songs, or his prowess as a performer.

Take a recent show at St. Andrew’s United Church in Grafton, Ontario for example, where Whiteley’s audience seemed to be composed equally of Shelter Valley Folk Festival fans, clients of a local group home, and long-time members of the little church.

Backed by the brilliant George Koller on bass, Alana Bridgewater and Ciceal Levy on vocals, Whiteley demonstrated his uncanny ability to speak to the sacred and the secular in one breath.

Drawing on the Sunday morning classics, he easily engages with believers – even as he tosses off bits of transcendent Eastern philosophy. Meanwhile he keeps any agnostic members of the audience nodding and tapping with the pure infectious energy of his music.

And that may be the secret to Whiteley’s approach: while some gospel musicians preach, pray or perform with an agenda, his only apparent intent is to express the feelings inside him.

“It’s another day’s journey and I’m so glad,” sings Whiteley on the title track of his latest CD. It’s a religious sentiment of a sort, but an easy one to agree with, regardless of your worldview.

Breaking into shouts and claps, improvising solos and doing his characteristic herky-jerky dance, Whiteley is carried away by the music. He isn’t telling the audience what to feel. He’s just feeling it.

Whiteley is even reluctant to weigh in and teach the audience to clap on the back beat, as is traditional with gospel music. He’s loath to tell anyone how they “should” be expressing themselves. It’s clear that no one’s telling him how to behave, musically.

No one that is, except whatever power moves and drives this music. By the second set, having thrown in a few bits of universal wisdom already, Whiteley is using the word God – but by now it’s clear to the audience that what he means may not be what they brought with them.

You get the sense, though, that it’s something they’ll take home.

“Let my life be prayer,” he sings – and it is.

That’s the Gospel according to Ken.