With all of his international acclaim and success, singer Gregory Porter could rightfully say all the world is his stage. But with the his upcoming benefit performance on Dec. 16 at the Fox Theater, he’s made a point to give back to the community he considers home.
“There’s a song that I wrote for my upcoming record called ‘Phoenix’ (that’ll be recorded at the beginning of 2019) and it's about the Concorde — the old plane that no longer exists,” Porter said via phone interview from Austin, Texas.
“‘60,000 ft above the air/ and I'm moving at twice the speed of sound/ and the only thing that keeps me grounded/ is gravity and the memory of home.’
“I'm absolutely talking about Bakersfield in the song. There is no mention of Bakersfield being the sand that I desire to put my feet in, but that's what I'm talking about in the song. It still is important to me.”
“There are some feelings and emotions that exist in our little town that are precious in other places around the world. ... We have some things there (in Bakersfield) that are rich and unique.”
Porter’s concert at the Fox is being billed as “unplugged,” meaning it will be a comparatively stripped-down affair than a lot of the concerts he’s done as of late. Touring in support of his 2017 Grammy-winning Nat King Cole tribute album “Nat King Cole & Me,” found the singer fond of signature headwear performing with full orchestras.
Already a star in Europe, Porter sold out three nights in a row at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall. One of those performances was filmed and will be released Stateside on Jan. 11 as a CD/DVD combo, “One Night Only: Live At The Royal Albert Hall.” (The digital album and concert is already available on iTunes.)
His upcoming show at the Fox is primarily a charity function, as per Porter’s design, insisting his local shows be funneled into charitable causes. His previous — and first — performance in Bakersfield earlier this January at the Doré Theatre benefitted Habitat for Humanity.
“I have no interest to aggrandize myself,” Porter said. “I just want to bring attention to other causes.”
Proceeds of the ticket sales for his upcoming concert will go to Agapeland Christian Academy, coinciding with the school’s 30th anniversary educating children, including Porter’s own.
“This is a benefit,” Porter said. “Most importantly, for me, it's a benefit for the school. They're doing great work there and my son, as a result of being there, is very sharp. I'd like for them to be able to continue their work and I just want to help with that.”
Marisa Banks, the administrator for the academy, and Porter have been friends since they were children. Porter’s mother led a ministry on Lakeview Avenue and the memories of it and her were the main inspiration behind Porter’s 2016 Grammy-Award winning album “Take Me to the Alley.” Banks’ grandfather also had a service on Lakeview Avenue and Porter would watch him and Banks’ father preach, all of them shining a light to the neighborhood, both spiritually and, at times, quite literally.
“Marisa has been a great friend and she's part of my musical history,” Porter said. “Her grandfather had an outdoor service that he would do every summer and that's what we did. We sat in these wooden handmade church pews on Lakeview Avenue.”
“It was an outdoor service arranged with these Christmas lights. The idea was that the sermon would just bathe the neighborhood with a good message and song.”
“The handclaps in (the title track to his 2016 other Grammy-winning album) ‘Liquid Spirit’ come directly from me sitting in the splintered church pews of Marisa’s grandfather's outdoor church. That spirit and energy that's in ‘Liquid Spirit’ came from there.”
The show will be highly conversational with Porter reflecting on his music and its origins with the audience.
“Sometimes, I don't overtly say some of the meanings of the songs or the influence that Bakersfield may have had on my music, so there’ll be a bit of that,” Porter said. “I hope it's interesting to people; it is interesting to me. When I sing ‘Hey Laura’ (also off of ‘Liquid Sky’) in that country twang that you hear, that's from listening to country music. ‘Heeey Laura, it’s me,’ It's from listening to George Jones, you know?”
Porter is honest in his complicated relationship with the city he calls home. The lessons he gained from encountering cruelty and witnessing redemption in the alleys and streets of Bakersfield gave him a perspective on grace and sensitivity along with a heavy pragmatic dose of hope and objectivity.
“I deal with the full perspective of Bakersfield,” Porter said. “The challenges that my mother and my family had in Bakersfield, I think about that. I mean, the difficulties that Bakersfield has had in its past and even (now), this is with any city. That is in my music as well. The places where I first encountered really hardcore racism, that happened in Bakersfield ... This idea of mutual respect that you hear in (my) songs like ‘No Love Dying, ‘When Love Was King,’ ‘Painted on Canvas,’ those ideas are coming from experiences that I had in Bakersfield.
“The idea of just wanting to be a citizen and not a suspect, that feeling came from (those experiences). But at the same time, the kindness and great friendship, the deep musical history that I got, came from Bakersfield as well. It gave me a lot and it's still giving me a lot.”