By Wade Tatangelo , Herald-Tribune / Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Shantel Norman stomps her high-heels for emphasis, singing and shouting and smiling and cajoling the crowd to give thanks to Jesus. Give thanks to Jesus for waking you up on this beautiful morning and give thanks to Jesus for that plate filled with good food in front of you and, while you’re at it, give thanks to Jesus for the bloody mary you’re drinking. Norman doesn’t mention the cocktail specialty during her mid-song sermon but, yes, it’s another reason I might feel inclined to give thanks during our inaugural visit to the gospel brunch held every Sunday at The Blue Rooster in Sarasota.
My wife Kristin and I arrive right before the doors open at 11:30 a.m. There are a dozen or so people already lined up in front of us. There are families who appear to have come straight from church, dressed in their Sunday best, and then people like me wearing shorts and a polo shirt. It’s a racially diverse crowd with young and old waiting patiently side by side.
We made reservations as recommended and Blue Rooster co-owner Ellen Cornelius greets us, and everyone else filing in, with a big grin before we take our chosen seats a few yards away from the stage. The majority of the crowd rushes the buffet line while we settle in at the bar where Stacey Rhoads, one of the best mixologists in town, makes a delicious “Hail Mary” ($9) containing just the right amounts of vodka, tomato juice, horseradish, and other seasonings. It’s a handsome beverage garnished with shrimp, pickle and a big, crisp piece of bacon. Kristin and I will split a second one of these bloody marys just to confirm their greatness. Every table in the expansive dining area seems covered with mason jars containing this concoction. Yes, spirits are being lifted even before the spirituals are sung.
Half a drink in me and I’m ready to brave the food line. It’s crowded and I’m claustrophobic but everyone is polite and not at all pushy, and soon I’m concentrating on covering my plate with as much food as possible despite the fact that the $25-per-person brunch is all-you-can-eat.
The fried chicken and fried catfish, my two favorites, are tender and juicy with a flavorful, crunchy exterior. Kristin is partial to the waffles with blueberry syrup. I’m also digging the fried green tomatoes and collard greens. Other options include biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs, bacon, cheesy grits, fresh fruit, brunswick stew, macaroni and cheese, and German chocolate cake.
The gospel group Truality starts performing promptly at noon. Three singers in black dresses are at the front side of the stage backed by a drummer and keyboardist who also sings. The songs are uptempo with a positive message, but not preachy. A funky backbeat marked by heavy kick drum and vibrant keyboard runs get the crowd’s attention despite all the food being consumed. The singers take turns on solos and close harmony. They sound gorgeous. But it’s pretty evident that we are being warmed up, that things are merely simmering before the stage really starts to sizzle.
Enter Shantel Norman, her hair flowing and her arms swinging and her voice booming as she testifies with the sincerity and skill of a true gospel great. A longtime resident of the Sarasota and Bradenton area, Norman flirted with national fame in 2011 when she made the finals on the ABC network reality show “Karaoke Battle USA” by wowing a panel of judges that included Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips. Norman is perhaps best known around the area these days for performing with her reggae band Jah Movement. I’ve seen her sing pop and reggae before and know how gifted she is, but witnessing her gospel act is something else, something I won’t soon forget.
“I’ve been doing gospel since I was child,” Norman tells me. “It’s what I’ve always done.”
The Blue Rooster has become the ideal spot for her to meld the sacred and secular, bringing together perhaps a more diverse crowd than the one she performs in front of every Sunday morning at the Trinity Christian Fellowship Center in Sarasota before her gig at The Blue Rooster. Bill Cornelius and his wife Ellen opened The Blue Rooster in early 2013 as a restaurant and live music venue with a bar. While the venue regularly hosts nationally-acclaimed roots music acts, the Sunday gospel brunch has gradually become one of its most popular attractions.
“When I was moved to Detroit to work for Ford after I graduated from the University of Illinois, I did not have any friends at first,” Bill says. “I went alone to a music venue most Sunday afternoons because I had the blues. Sundays have always felt special to me as a day to experience music.”
While in Atlanta attending the Olympics, Bill had lunch at an old house in Social Circle, about 45 miles east of Atlanta, and sat spellbound as a female African-American server sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the patrons.
“It felt so sincere and sounded so beautiful that I will never forget it,” he recalls. “This server was as talented a singer as I have ever heard. She told me that she only sang in church. That feeling of listening to someone singing from their heart is what I wanted others to experience by starting the gospel brunch. I am very confident that many of the people who attend the gospel brunch and hear Shantel Norman and Truality testify will never forget it as long as they live.”
I’ve enjoyed similar experiences in the Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival but have never really witnessed anything comparable outside an actual church service here in Sarasota-Bradenton to what goes on inside The Blue Rooster on Sunday afternoons. It’s uplifting and uniting, and a great place to give thanks on this Thanksgiving weekend.