A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
OCtober 5, 2007
In introducing Michelle Shocked at the outset of her new live album ToHeavenURide, an announcer says “We’ve always enjoyed what she’s brought to us. It’s different every time.”
That it is. Through the years Shocked has released folky campfire music, big-band swing, sensitive chicky singer-songwriter stuff, an album of Disney songs, and she even took a stab at East Los Angeles R & B.
But in recent years, Shocked seems most grounded in the world of gospel music. She’s not just a spectator when it comes to gospel. She attends services and sings in the choir at a Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles. My favorite Shocked album (except for the periods in which I prefer the country rootsy Arkansas Traveler) is 2002’s gospel-propelled Deep Natural.
ToHeavenURide was recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003 and almost seems like an extension of the earlier album. It features a band centered around the Dancy family from the New Greater Circle Mission Church in South L.A. The title of the album is a play on one supposed root of Telluride’s name, “to hell you ride.”
There are only two Deep Natural songs here — the reggae-infused “Can’t Take My Joy” and “Good News,” a rocking tune inspired by an environmentalist struggle led by church folks against a polluting company in a Louisiana town.
ToHeavenURide starts off with a slow, eight-minute groove on a classic song by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Strange Things Happening Every Day.” Here, Shocked talks about “the ministry of Sister Rosetta,” who she says is considered by some to be the “father” (that’s what she says!) of rockabilly, a “church lady playing electric guitar and wearin’ a blonde wig.” People didn’t understand her ministry, Shocked says, “’cause she wouldn’t just play in the churches. She would play in the nightclubs, she would play in the bars, she would play wherever anyone needed to hear the Word.”
My personal favorites here are “Good News,” another Shocked original called “The Quality of Mercy” (originally on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack compilation), and the much-covered classic “Uncloudy Day” in which Shocked is accompanied only by background singers and a tremolo guitar. Try not to think about Pops Staples during this one.
*Live In London: The BBC Recordings 1972-1973 by Judee Sill. Just a few years ago it seemed that all traces of the late singer/songwriter Judee Sill had been completely wiped out of the collective memory of the human race. You couldn’t find much of anything about her on the Internet. There even was a dispute about when she died. (It was 1979, at the age of 35, of a heroin overdose. )
But since Rhino Handmade rereleased her (only) two albums — Judee Sill and the immortal Heart Food — a few years ago, more and more people are being initiated into the strange and alluring world of Sill’s music. (In case you haven’t guessed, Heart Food is one of my favorite albums in the history of civilization.)
Lasr, Warner released both the albums and various outtakes and alternate versions as Complete Asylum Recordings (also called Abracadabra: The Asylum Years). The year before, the independent Water Records released Dreams Come True, consisting of recordings for her never-completed third album, plus other stray demos and live tapes.
Now comes a live album, also released by Water. These stripped-down solo versions of songs from her two official studio albums were recorded during a British tour. You can hear Sill talking between songs about her music and her career, including how she learned to play gospel piano in reform school. She talks about the religious mysticism that haunts her songs. But her reflections are jarring knowing that with the commercial failure of Heart Food, her career would soon fizzle, and she would drop out of sight and be dead in just a few years.
If you haven’t heard the studio albums, get them first to hear these songs as God — or at least Judee — intended them to be remembered. But if you are already a Sill fan, you’ll need this record. While I prefer Heart Food’s full-blown version of “The Donor,” the solo version here also will infest your soul.
Local recording notes: Frogville Records recently scored a coup when it snagged bluesman Taj Mahal — in town for a Sept. 21 show at the Santa Fe Brewing Company — to record harmonica and guitar tracks for upcoming releases by Hundred Year Flood and Boris & The Saltlicks.
Frogville supreme commander and president-for-life John Treadwell explained it this way: “We had less than an hour and a half with Taj in the studio before we had to rocket him back to the hotel to change clothes, but it was just perfect. We got just what we needed. He is such a professional.” Treadwell said he and producer Andy Kravitz stuck around in the hotel parking lot to make sure Taj Mahal got a ride to the show. This was fortunate because the musician’s ride never came. Treadwell and Kravitz got him to the Brewing Company “with about two or three minutes to spare.”
Taj Mahal is the second nationally known performer to record on the ongoing Flood sessions. Country rocker Shannon McNally was rounded up to sing on the upcoming album when she was in Santa Fe for an August bandstand show on the Plaza.
Speaking of Boris & The Saltlicks, kudos to the group for winning in the country/folk/singer-songwriter category at New Mexico’s State Fair Talent Showcase last month.