Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Rev. Billy and the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir at Highline Ballroom, NYC 4/18/10

Residents of Iceland aren’t the only people in the western world waking up to see their hometowns drenched in a sinister coat of dust: go to West Virginia, where Massey Energy blasts the tops off mountains to get the coal inside (it’s cheaper than going undergound to get it). Having led the fight against the Disneyfication of New York and pushed back a Walmart invasion of Gotham, Rev. Billy has turned his focus on the fight to preserve the mountaintop ecosystem of Appalachia, currently threatened by stripmining. The Reverend, his titanic 25-piece gospel choir and first-rate band make their point with a mixture of old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preaching, a lot of good jokes and a mammoth sound. Sunday afternoon at Highline Ballroom choir director James Solomon Benn led the group onto the stage as pianist Rick Ulfik, bassist Nathan Stevens and drummer Eric Johnson pulsed along on an expertly ecstatic, shuffling gospel groove and then launched into a hymn to the joys of New York neighborhood life. “My imagination is not for sale! My neighborhood is not for sale!” went part of the refrain, a triumphant tribute to the successful fight to keep Walmart from moving in and destroying every small business in New York as it has everywhere else.

Like the Clash, their songs are catchy, and they all have a message. “Standing up for public space!” a soaring, funky, in-your-face minor-key number declared. “There’s a mountain in my lobby, at JP Morgan Chase!” a bearded member of the choir announced (it’s their current theme song – where most of the other big banks bailed out of financing stripmining after the 2008 stock market crash, JP Morgan Chase jumped right in). The group’s polyphony is imaginative and exciting, to say the least – when you have 25 voices shifting in sections, it’s impossible not to pay attention, and this group works that to the fullest extent possible. A latin gospel number featuring the potent, powerful voices of Sr. Laura Newman and another member of the choir, Jessica, was “dedicated to raising a child right – I mean left,” winked Rev. Billy, a swipe at conspicuously consumptive yuppie parenting. A trio came out of the choir and led the voices in a sad, plaintive country waltz spiced with banjo and ukelele: “There’s a cancer in the promised land.”

Newman took center stage again with a joyous, rousingly optimistic original gospel number she’d written: “Your children will climb back to the sky,” the chorus declared with a defiant optimism. Rev. Billy and guest speaker Bo Webb also provided plenty of information on the nefarious deeds of Massey Energy (they clearcut and then burn tons of valuable West Virginia hardwood rather than recycling or even trying to sell it!), energizing the crowd with a Christian existentialist activist message as grounded in philosophy as it is in real life (Rev. Billy AKA Bill Talen has a deep resume in serious theatre, in addition to being “jailed over 50 times” as his website gleefully proclaims). “The reason why Earth First scares people is that we always think of Earth as the Other,” he explained. But it was here first – and will be here long after we will if we can’t put a stop to the processes feeding global warming (the band did a song about that too and it was as arresting as the rest of the set). At the end, after two solid hours of insight and amazing harmonies, the choir left the way they came in, through the audience, singing as they went. Rev. Billy makes the Highline his home when he’s not building little mountains in the lobbies of Chase banks – watch this space for future concerts.

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April 23, 2010 - Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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