Sweet Honey In the Rock connects with Kauffman Center audience

The rapturous praise and energetic applause that greeted the opening song of Sweet Honey In the Rock’s magnificent performance Thursday at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre indicated that the concert would contain plenty of communal rapport between the audience of about 1,200 and the six women on stage.

The entrancing version of “Hush (Somebody’s Calling My Name)” merited the spontaneous displays of enthusiasm.

For 100 minutes not including intermission, the a cappella quartet performed traditional gospel material, civil rights anthems and politically-charged pop songs.

The exuberant interaction between performers and the audience heightened the celebratory tone of the evening while affirming the universal appeal of the repertoire.

Many members of the audience — including Mayor Sly James — possess fine voices. Few of the people who sang along, however, could match the splendid vocals of the members of Sweet Honey In the Rock. The Washington D.C.-based ensemble made its debut at Howard University in 1973. The members of Sweet Honey In the Rock were soon recognized as powerful torchbearers for the storied tradition of African-American a cappella groups.

Along with sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton, the five vocalists sat, stood and danced in a semi-circle. The women occasionally sang in unison, but most often one singer would assume lead vocal duties while the others created a rich backdrop of lustrous harmonies and intricate rhythms. Smidgens of percussion accented the presentation.

The resonant singing of Ysaye Maria Barnwell anchored the group. Her supple voice and uncommon charisma make her Sweet Honey In the Rock’s standout member. Her bawdy lead vocal on “See-Line Woman” delighted the audience, but the dependable bottom end accompaniment she provided as a background vocalist offered essential heft to most selections.

Her colleagues also impressed.

Carol Lynn Maillard’s vibrant voice took lead on the uplifting “I’m On My Way To Freedom Land” and the lively gospel of “I Was Standing By the Bedside of a Neighbor.” “Ballad of Henry T. Moore” and “Jesus On the Mainline” were enriched by the inviting voice of Louise Robinson. Nitanju Bolade Casel’s celestial lead vocal on “Denko” silenced even the most demonstrative members of the audience. The jazz-tinged “I Like It That Way” and “Breathes,” an ethereal spiritual, were similarly stunning.

During a medley of songs associated with the civil rights movement, Casel noted that selections like “We Shall Not Be Moved” are “strong, confident and sure.”

That description also encapsulates Sweet Honey In the Rock’s vital appearance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.