To Heaven U Ride
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by John Metzger
Wed September 19, 2007, 06:00 AM CDT
Michelle Shocked was touring in support of Deep Natural when she teamed with Hot Rize guitarist Nick Forster and members of the West Angeles COGIC mass choir for a gig at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003 — the show that is featured in its entirety on her latest endeavor To Heaven U Ride. The collaboration apparently came at the request of the event’s longtime producer Craig Ferguson, and while Shocked’s embrace of gospel might have been a surprise to some, the move was fitting, both with Shocked’s personality as well as with the turns that her career had begun to take. Shocked had been raised by her fundamentalist Mormon mother before she ran away to live with her father at the age of 15. It was he who introduced her to the blues, and thus he has played a large role in influencing the paths she has explored with her songs.
Always one to incorporate a wide range of textures into her work, Shocked’s music, nevertheless, has undergone an array of permutations since she issued her manifesto of personal field recordings known as The Texas Campfire Tapes in 1986. With each subsequent album, her punk-ish spirit has softened, and her anti-folk stance has mutated into something that is strikingly more traditional. At the same time, her independent streak has continued to strengthen. In 1992, she found her own religion by joining the congregation of the West Angeles Cathedral Church of God, and by the time she made the gospel, reggae, and soul-infused set Deep Natural in 2002, her compositions more overtly had begun to exude spiritual themes.
The making of To Heaven U Ride was a happy accident because Shocked’s performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival wasn’t supposed to be recorded. In fact, her contract specifically prohibited it. Nevertheless, when she took the stage, her hour-long set was preserved for posterity. Throughout the show, she used her own songs to make political statements. She revived Quality of Mercy from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, for example, in order to point out the flaw in George W. Bush’s rationale for supporting the death penalty. With Good News, she took the opportunity to highlight the ways in which religion and politics can unite to achieve favorable outcomes for the general populace. Still, although her intentions undeniably were virtuous, they broke up the momentum she steadily had built with a meditative cover of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day; a serene, jazz-soaked interpretation of Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child; and an illuminating rendition of The Band’s The Weight, on which she took a page straight from The Last Waltz.
Once she allowed the music to consume her, however, Shocked’s performance began to speak for itself. Over the course of consecutive tributes to The Staple Singers (Wade in the Water, Uncloudy Day), Sweet Honey in the Rock (Study War No More), and Mighty Clouds of Joy (We’re Blessed), Shocked and her collaborators moved from a mood of quiet reverence to one of joyously upbeat fervor. In turn, this set the stage perfectly for her final pair of original compositions: the Dylan-esque loveliness of Psalm and the elastic groove of Can’t Take My Joy. It’s here where the bonds among Shocked, her band, and her audience were made unbreakable. Four years later, the material on To Heaven U Ride remains powerfully transcendent. ˝
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box