Michelle Shocked

To Heaven U Ride

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Two years after she simultaneously released three separate recordings on her own Mighty Sound imprint, Michelle Shocked is back with a live album. Don't plan on hearing live versions of Shocked's classics from Short Sharp Shocked, Arkansas Traveler, or Captain Swing. In fact, don't plan on hearing much of her old material at all (four tunes). To Heaven U Ride is a live gospel recording done with a killer gospel band and small choir from Los Angels churches, recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003. Shocked begins with a funky bluesy groove and does her own extrapolated cover version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happening Every Day," and follows it with a Sunday morning version of Robbie Robertson's "The Weight," before warming up enough to deliver an intensely funky version of her own "Quality of Mercy." The choir and the band's rhythm section add considerable punch to Shocked's delivery. She can sing with the best of them with that throaty contralto of hers, but she is really pushed by this group. The set is released as it happened, so not a lot of editing was done in order to keep its energy and flow intact. That's both a good thing and a bad thing -- musically it's terrific, because all that crackling energy is on offer and the sound is awesome. Then there is the talking and sermonizing, which is part of a Sunday church gig: authenticity was what she was going for, so you can't blame her (there's some social activism tossed in with her gospel rap). Still, hearing that stuff once is enough. The raps on all live records are best heard once.

This group kicks ass on her "Good News" as well, bringing the blues and funk home inside some seriously snaky rock & roll. Pops Staples would have loved this tune. And speaking of Pops, Shocked's reading of "Uncloudy Day" is based on the Staples' original version from the 1950s with a single reverbed electric guitar backing her and the choir (this after a completely choral version of "Wade in the Water"). "Study War No More" is a bit ragged and rough (but the spirit's there to be sure); it sounds like it's too high for her. The set begins to turn the corner after another sprightly, beautifully funky gospel number that's just riotously happy ("Blessed"), and Shocked launches into a deeply inspired and moving version of her "Psalm." The conviction in her voice is clear. For her this is no show; this is church. Shocked's religious conviction is every bit as fiery as a gospel preacher's, and social justice -- as it was borne out of the Southern black gospel churches -- is very much alive in her heart and in her performance. Good for her; at least she believes in something besides consumerism and/or fame. The final track is a reggae reading -- her own "Can't Take My Joy." They do what they can to get the audience involved, but let's face it, they're at a bluegrass festival. This set is a mixed bag, but not for lack of trying. It's admirable that it happened at all and it's musically very sophisticated. But one gets the feeling that a set like this would have been even better performed at Bonnaroo, where audience participation would have been full, wild, and as inspiring as the music.

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