Tent-revival powerhouse Ponder preaches what she practices

As lights pulsed from purple to green to blue, a woman in tall boots, a black dress and curls out past her shoulders traced the notes she was singing with her finger in the air. Her crescendos elicited approving calls from the audience. She is a powerhouse frontwoman. Her audience is her congregation and she is the pastor.

Self-described tent-revival musician Danielle Ponder revived audiences at Funk ’N Waffles Downtown on Friday night. Her band, Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People, are from Rochester, but frequent the Funk ’N Waffles stage, bringing with them transformative soul-funk grooves. The four-piece band (Ponder, a drummer/backup singer, a keyboardist/backup singer and a guitar player) opened for Rochester funk band Thunder Body, but Ponder was clearly the fan favorite and the night’s star.

Harkening back to the themes of protest music from the 1960s and ‘70s, Ponder calls on her congregation to be more loving, tolerant and understanding of others and themselves.

Dedicating her musical and professional talents to this mission, Ponder works as a public defender in Rochester. She is also involved with Rochester’s Anti-Poverty Initiative and serves on the board for Teen Empowerment.

Ponder’s lyrics are calls to action reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” days with the sound of his pre-fame gospel roots and the sensuality of Lauryn Hill.

The structure of Ponder’s songs mimic their messages: harmonious, collaborative and conversational, with strong vocals that are as empowering as the sound.

Frequently using call and response-based choruses, Ponder recreates the sounds, themes and visceral energy of a gospel church on a Sunday morning. Some songs, like “Love Is,” resemble children’s Bible songs like “This Little Light of Mine,” and others also often focused on messages of love and harmony.

Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People’s messages are far from preachy, though. They are reminders of the world’s potential for peace. Her songs are more like conversations with a smarter and much more enlightened friend.

Ponder’s concerts force audiences to check their days at the door and focus on bigger issues like love, justice and freedom, and all the dancing that goes along with it.

In recognition of these bigger issues, Ponder was named one of City’s “Rochester 10” last year, which brings attention to community members working to better Rochester.

In her interview with City for “The Rochester 10,” Ponder said, “My purpose in life, on stage and in the courtroom, is to tell these stories that people are not listening to."

Ponder does exactly that. Before playing “Criminalized” at Funk ’N Waffles, she explained she wrote the song about Tamir Rice while she was in law school. She reminded the audience that even if they’re not young black men, they can still listen to and sympathize with the struggle against police brutality.

Most of Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People’s set was original, homegrown inspiration, save for three songs. Ponder rocked a soul version of AWOLNATION’s “Sail,” a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” and a more sensual version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” She also included an interlude homage to Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” which itself is based on The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps.”

Ponder’s set included a harmony-heavy song specifically dedicated to the transgender community and an empowering anthem called “Three Word Revolution” (the revolution is “I love myself”), among others. Each one is clear in its message, whether that be love, peace, justice or otherwise.

Danielle Ponder and the Tomorrow People offer a fully-immersive world of empowerment for all people. Her words are founded in love. When Ponder’s in the courtroom, she practices what she preaches, and when she takes the stage, she preaches what she practices.

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