LIVE: Sweet Honey in the Rock @ MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center, 7/7/12

Review by J Hunter

There was a slight pause before Sweet Honey in the Rock’s encore as the five-woman vocal group had to sort out the tangle of mic cords that crossed and re-crossed over each other on the Hunter Center’s stage. “Usually we’re wireless,” Sweet Honey leader Ysaye Barnwell told us, adding wryly, “For this very reason!”

It’s not like the group has complicated choreography that would create such a wild coaxial spaghetti monster. Apart from exchanging places and seats between numbers, Sweet Honey’s stage show is pretty static. Sure, Aisha Kahlil got up and moved to the spirit during a five-part vocalization that was half-African prayer chant and half-birdsong, and Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson “faced off” for a brilliant call-and-answer session during the encore “Operator.” But other than that, the group basically either stood or sat – alone or together – and sang their ever-living hearts out, just like various iterations of the group have been doing for nearly 40 years.

While the lion’s share of the 90-minute set focused on Sweet Honey’s latest disc “Experience 101,” the group opened the evening with the Mahalia Jackson spiritual “I Been Buked.” Khalil started the lyric off, followed quickly and closely by Maillard (who wore Nina Simone sunglasses, and had a vocal style to match them). In no time all, five women were involved, either singing harmony on the vocal or providing some kind of foundation sound. This included a bass note from Barnwell that I couldn’t hit when I was in high school, and didn’t smoke! “There is trouble all over this world,” the women told us in song, and never have those dire words sounded more beautiful.

Both the music and the harmonies were straight out of the gospel church, which was the bedrock of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, and the concept of Sweet Honey in the Rock was conceived by civil-rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon. So it makes sense that the gospel sound is also the bedrock of Sweet Honey, as is the activist spirit of Johnson Reagon: Some of the lyrics, introductions and between-song raps would have made a Tea Party member’s head implode, but they got wild applause from the capacity crowd at the Hunter Center, as did Barnwell’s shout-outs to Barack Obama, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks during “Do What the Spirits Say Do.”

That said, “Spirits” is a snapshot of Sweet Honey’s depth and vision. The piece itself is driven by doo-wop harmonies more closely associated with the Persuasions, and that sound was toughened by the hip-hop sensibility that infused Barnwell’s rapid-fire delivery. “Spirits” comes from Experience 101, which is billed as a children’s CD, and certainly contains messages and cultural references every child should know. But there are messages throughout songs like “I Like it That Way” and “For U 2 Know” that everyone needs to hear — messages about kindness, self-esteem, learning to love, loving to learn and doing unto others “because it’s sweet and kind.” Maybe these songs were built for children, but they were made for everybody, and there was never the sense that they were being sung to anyone but us.

There are even more layers to Sweet Honey’s music, with influences like jazz and blues, Motown girl groups, Jewish prayer songs and African chants. Nitanju Casel’s rousing rendition of “Denko” went to the heart of the latter genre, and shook us all to our souls. There were also nods to icons like Bob Marley, thanks to an amazing deconstruction of “Redemption Song” that had Kahlil drawing the crowd into an ever-more-complex scatting duel. And when Barnwell introduced “See-Line Woman” (“This song is in the Library of Congress,” she informed us. “Somebody collected it!”), she paid warm tribute to the aforementioned Nina Simone, who included it on her 1964 release “Broadway-Blues-Ballads.”

The hardest-working person onstage never sang a note. That was sign-language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton, who has one of the most ebullient natures I’ve ever seen. Wearing a smile that never left her face, Saxton not only signed all the lyrics and introductions to the songs, she also “interpreted” the pieces and places where there were no lyrics. Her hands fluttering like birds, you could see the spirit of the music pulsing through her as she matched the vocalist’s passion and energy note for note.

I’ve seen big-time rock monsters like Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton, and I’ve seen the Ramones and the Boomtown Rats at the most powerful points in their respective careers. And yet, Sweet Honey in the Rock matches that power with five microphones and no backup musicians, because each member has a presence and an inner strength that knocks you flat before they even open their mouths. And when they are in full song… Well, that’s it. You’re hooked. You have no choice. It’s that strong, that massive, that beautiful.

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