Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked

BandAmericanaFolk

One of the true originators of what is commonly now referred to as “Americana”, well before it was popular, Michelle burst on to the scene in 1989 when her landmark album, “Short, Sharp, Shocked” landed her a Grammy Nomination as “Best New Artist”.

Biography

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” writes Michelle Shocked in her “womanifesto,” a tract written in conjunction with her forthcoming album. “Or at least that’s been my experience.” Evidencing an inventive narrative sense, the Lord sent this initially unwitting pilgrim on an extended musical and spiritual journey that began two more than two decades ago, when the fledgling artist was a self-described feminist and punk rocker.

In the beginning, Shocked writes, “I was moved by the power of rock ‘n’ roll. And if you follow the trail from rock ‘n’ roll, it always leads you back to the blues, sweet soul music and finally to the churches and gospel music.” In Shocked’s case, it led to the West Angeles COGIC mass choir in the heart of South Central Los Angeles, whence she has come to the point of “living by the Good Book, and putting out a gospel record.”

But not just any gospel record. Indeed, one might say that Shocked’s new album, which bears the playfully profound (or vice versa) title ToHeavenURide, was heaven-sent. One might further conclude that the Holy Spirit has a fittingly elevated sense of humor, irony and symmetry. Like the iconoclastic artist’s very first LP, 1987’s The Texas Campfire Tapes, this new set contains recordings Shocked didn’t know were being made while she was putting on the show it documents. She may be the only artist in history with not one but two inadvertent live albums in her body of work.

The performance that ToHeavenURide comprises (to be released Sept. 4th on Mighty Sound through Megaforce/RED) was digitally captured at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival — and this despite the fact that Shocked’s contract had specifically stated “no recording.” But because that year’s festival was being documented for a projected DVD by a production crew with no knowledge of the contractual stipulation, Shocked’s entire set just happened to be captured for posterity — assuming it was ever unearthed. The recording would have continued to be hidden away in binary limbo had it not occurred to Shocked’s new manager to inquire about the possibility of its existence, and there it was, preserved in the virtual amber of a Pro Tools file. When she heard this group of songs, Shocked realized how perfectly they connected with her present musical and spiritual direction. Hallelujah, y’all.

What makes the performance contained on ToHeavenURide even more intriguing is that, in marked contrast to the act of “preaching to the converted,” as most gospel recordings tend to do, Shocked and her musical cohorts were putting the Good News out there not for a congregation of worshipers but rather for a crowd of people who had no idea they were about to witness an act of spiritual elevation — so in a very real sense, the album documents the progressive coming together of two widely divergent (if not necessarily antithetical) mindsets. It was its incongruous setting that led Shocked to describe this provocative musical statement as a manifestation of “the politics of preaching,” as opposed to preaching per se. And that may well be another first.

The marriage between the spirit of gospel music and the crisp Rocky Mountain air has resulted in a performance that is inspired in more than one sense of the term. Accompanied by a fittingly diverse crew made up of her Bay Area rhythm section, pedal steel player Nick Forster (Hot Rize, etown) and the Dancys from the New Greater Circle Mission Church in South L.A. on backing vocals and keyboards, Shocked delivers 11 songs ranging from the explicitly devotional to what she refers to as “secular gospel.”

“Strange Things Happening Every Day” and “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” come from the songbook of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of Shocked’s primary influences. She calls Tharpe the “father — well, mother — of rockabilly” in the manifesto, and the songs are dedicated to her spirit. “The Weight” by The Band and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” representing the secular gospel realm, are given the Shocked treatment, while she draws on the Staples Singers, who moved freely between the church and the concert hall, for “Uncloudy Day” and “Wade in the Water.” The modern gospel standard “Blessed,” by Fred Hammond of the Detroit gospel group Commissioned, completes the list of outside songs.

Shocked also includes four originals here: “The Quality of Mercy” (originally written for the soundtrack of the film Dead Man Walking), “Good News” (commissioned by Greenpeace for the documentary Cancer Alley), “Psalm” (which proves the Psalms are a fertile source of the folk tradition) and “Can’t Take My Joy” — on which she hot-wires gospel and reggae traditions, with a specific nod to the great Bob Marley, who knew a little something about the intersection of praise and revelry.

Let us now return to Shocked’s womanifesto for a greater understanding of this fiercely single-minded artist and the long, strange trip (as she puts it, quoting the Dead) that has led

Discography

ToHeavenURide - released September 4, 2007