NORTH TONAWANDA - A nearly full house in the Riviera Theatre welcomed "Queen of Christian Pop" Amy Grant Saturday night for a concert that, like her 35-year career, traveled in and out of religious themes while maintaining spiritual undertones.
Grant's easy-going approach fit the folksy feel of the 86-year-old, 1,140-seat theater, with its sizable staff of volunteers keeping order amid the majestic adornments and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ at the foot of the stage.
From the start, Grant set the tone that the secular songs that carried her to pop stardom were purely a vehicle to deliver her Christian values. The Nashville-raised Grant and her backing trio opened with a smooth groove in "Anywhere with Jesus," the first track of her 2005 album, "Rock of Ages . Hymns and Faith." The song was marked by three-part harmonies, also featuring acoustic guitarist Gene Miller, keyboardist Tony Harrell and the hand-drumming of Greg Morrow.
Grant, who was conversational throughout her 90-minute set, said they had performed earlier in the day in Rochester as part of the nationally touring Women of Faith conference, which drew a rise from some in the crowd. That prompted a laugh, with the singer replying, "I love that - means I gotta change the set list."
Perhaps the double-gig day explained why her simply beautiful voice wasn't quite in full form, though as a seasoned pro she pulled through with aplomb.
"Takes a Little Time" saw Morrow brandish brushes over his kick and snare drums - not a cymbal in sight - before Miller laid 12-string acoustic sweetness under Grant's near-straight performance of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi."
Harrell made his keyboard sound like a baby grand for "Saved by Love," the number inspired by Grant's first baby. She recalled becoming a mother at the same time as one of her best friends, to whom she dedicated the song. Harrell cued up a gospel feel in the keys for "Come Be with Me" before Grant gave comfortable vocal spins on one of her biggest pop hits, "Baby, Baby," singing the first lines effortlessly and reaching back for the challenging melodies of the second.
Grant then addressed the presence of opening act and label mate City Harbor, led by East Aurora native Molly Reed, who had noted during a saccharine five-song opening set of Christian pop that the occasion was a dream come true for her as a lifelong Grant disciple.
Grant invited Reed to join in the closing cover of Jackie DeShannon's 1968 hit, "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," which also featured Toronto-based Christian singer Daphne Brown-Bevacqua. Brown-Bevacqua had been called up from the crowd earlier to assist in the layered chorus of "1974 (We Were Young)," after she, her mother and sisters met Grant during the Rochester conference.
Grant recalled that "1974" was inspired by wanting more of her faith than a particular church had provided.
For her adoring fans, it would be difficult to want much more out of the eloquent and engaging performance that she gave Saturday night.