Michelle Shocked's musical ramble
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 4, 2003) – At the outset of her three-hour marathon performance at Club Helsinki on Tuesday night, Michelle Shocked promised the sold-out crowd that by the end of the evening they would know perhaps more about her than they might want. For fans, that’s probably impossible, and Shocked delivered on her promise, weaving a continuous narrative between and through songs that took listeners on a veritable journey of American roots music, from blues to folk to country to rock to soul to gospel, tying it all together through Shocked’s idiosyncratic personality and world-view.

This was no ordinary concert – Shocked’s rarely are. The show was framed as “Operation Campfire Shocked and Odd 2003,” a USO-style revue featuring hosts Peter Bergman, a co-founder of Firesign Theatre, and Maryedith Burrell, a writer-actress who has appeared with improvisational comedy companies such as the Groundlings and Second City. Bergman and Burrell, appearing as Bob Hopeless and Martha Rayoflight, punctuated the evening with skits of political satire that lampooned the current U.S. administration and its post-9/11 activities at home and abroad.

Shocked said she invited them along to pepper her show with their pointed humor so that she could relax and entertain, but never one to miss an opportunity, she took plenty of time to voice her own opinions on a variety of topics, including religious fundamentalism, globalism, corporate hegemony, the music industry, rape, race relations, and, of course, President Bush.

Over the course of the evening, Shocked’s digressive tangents took on a rhythm of their own, and by the end, when she revealed that she had a born-again experience several years ago at an inner-city church, it came as no surprise, as by that point it became clear that there is something of the rebel, doomsday prophet in Michelle Shocked – one who either gets arrested or locked up in an asylum (both of which have happened to her) or who leads a flock to the hills (which is what happens, figuratively at least, at her concerts).

And then there was the music. Take away the sermons and the soapbox preaching to the converted, and Shocked delivered a tour-de-force, a veritable history of American music. Through traditional and original songs, Shocked highlighted an underground history of America, where folk music – in the largest sense of the term – encodes and encapsulates people’s struggles against racism and economic oppression.

The 41-year-old Shocked herself seems to have packed several centuries of key experiences into a short lifetime, including living on the streets and squatting in abandoned tenements, busking in Europe and attending university. She drew on these experiences in songs including a swinging blues, “If Love Was a Train,” and “Prodigal Daughter,” the latter an update of the traditional fiddle tune, “Cotton Eyed Joe,” which she convincingly demonstrated was an encoded message about abortion.

“Jump Jim Crow” explored racial stereotypes, and the musicians swapped instruments for “Strawberry Jam” – Shocked traded her guitar for fiddle, and trumpeter Richard Armstrong picked up a mandolin – to emphasize the song’s underlying, do-it-yourself, anti-corporate message.

Shocked was backed by a terrific ensemble that also included drummer Billy Johnson, guitarist Bill Hampton and bassist Jamie Brewer, and was able to make the stylistic jumps necessary to follow Shocked’s restless musical curiosity and mercurial temperament.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 5, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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