Michelle Shocked’s ToHeavenURide is available in spite of herself, which is a blessing to us all. She had a “no recording” clause in her contract during her appearance at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival where she performed the festival’s Sunday morning gospel set.
However, since that was the 30th anniversary of the festival, a DVD of the event was made and her set was captured. Shocked wasn’t aware of it, but her new manager thought to ask about the tape's availability. Now we can all hear the sermon of Sister Shocked’s inspirational set.
After introducing her band, they launch into Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Strange Things Happening.” On the bridge, she provides some background info about Tharpe. While not a thought of as a traditional gospel song, the story of The Band’s “The Weight” fits right alongside with its Biblical references.
“Quality of Mercy” is an original song she wrote for Tim Robbin’s Dead Man Walking. She introduces the song by pointing out the incongruity of President Bush's Christian beliefs and the high number of executions when he was Governor of Texas.
The theme of people's actions not staying true to their religion is reaffirmed on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child:” “Rich relations may/ Give crust of bread and such/ You can help yourself/ But don't take too much.” A Satchmo imitation joins in to duet.
Shocked wrote “Good News” for a Greenpeace documentary about Convent, Louisiana, which is along the Mississippi River. The song's theme is about the heavy industry there and its effect on the people. She explains it in “Cancer Alley Rap.”
A different form of good news is delivered with two covers of The Staple Singers. “Wade in the Water” finds Shocked backed by a chorus of vocals and the clap of the audience/congregation. On “Uncloudy Day” the chorus of voices continue, but the clapping is replaced by Nick Forster’s terrific pedal steel guitar.
The solemn tone gives way to a raucous, foundation-shaking version of “Study War No More.” Most people will be more familiar with its alternate title “Down by the Riverside.” Fred Hammond of Commissioned leads the chorus and then takes the lead vocal on “We’re Blessed.”
The set closes with a couple of Shocked songs: “Psalm,” which explains that God “turned the rock that was” her heart, and “Can’t Take My Joy,” a reggae number that tells the trappings of this world will not affect the joy that comes from believing in the next one.
While the sermonizing on ToHeavenURide may turn off some listeners, I appreciate that religion works for some people. Its influence on art, let alone on music is undeniable, and doesn’t detract from the quality of the music and performances herein. Hopefully, Shocked and other artists will see what a gift it is to share their concerts with those unable to attend and reconsider their positions.