Until a couple of months ago, my knowledge of Michelle Shocked was limited to one 12-year old promo copy of The Facts and the Fiction lifted from the dusty milk-crate inventory of Orlando’s now-defunct DIY Records. Like Shocked herself, the CD was a slim little package jammed full of political naughtiness — I played the thing everywhere.
Imagine my delight to find Shocked’s latest release conveniently stowed in my own mailbox, squeaky clean and itching to divulge its good news. Recorded live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003, ToHeavenURide is a sort of sanctioned bootleg, craftily recovered from a dormant ProTools video file. While fans familiar with her debut Texas Campfire Tapes know Michelle’s no stranger to stealthy field recordings, the fact that this bootleg’s a gospel album seems, well, shocking…until you listen.
Gospel, yes. Politically naughty? Oh yes, Amen.
Though in her own words, “…people feel like religion and politics are an unhealthy mix,” Shocked’s conviction doesn’t keep her from spreading the truth — about a certain former governor’s predilection for executing people, for example — or from taking a playful shot at the Catholic Church (“…up, down, up, down…right?”). One of four original songs on the album, “The Quality of Mercy,” is a powerful diatribe on the just vs. unjust that slays “hypocrites and liars, senators and lawyers” with one breath, and the short sharp sermon, “Cancer Alley Rap,” proves that sometimes “all it takes is a prayer” to save a tiny black town from the environmental devastation of a Japanese multinational corporation.
If the socially-conscious Jesus theme isn’t bringing you to your knees, have faith; this record rocks, people. Michelle’s joined for this live set by her Bay Area rhythm section, Nick Forster of Hot Rize, and the soulful Dancy family from New Greater Circle Mission Church in South L.A. The singing Dancys infuse the entire set with a bluesy church feel, but it’s Shocked who leads the choir with one hell of a presence. You’ll recognize The Band’s “The Weight,” Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and maybe even two by the “Father of Rockabilly” herself, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but it’s the original “Good News” that really showcases Michelle’s out-of-body big voice.