Double-live disc is a masterclass in performance
Almost 40 years into its career, Sweet Honey in the Rock is such an institution that it’s difficult to say much bad about it. A musical collective unique in the pop firmament, Sweet Honey has remained true to its roots despite many shifts in the musical and social landscape. Comprised of African-American women whose stylistic range spans gospel, blues, jazz, and show tunes, there is very little that this group doesn’t do, and doesn’t do with extraordinary grace and beauty. I was fortunate to see them perform live in the early 1990s, and their power was jaw-dropping. Listeners wishing for an idea of what that mesmerizing live quality is like would do well to listen to Sweet Honey in the Rock: A Tribute, which is subtitled Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Comprising a 2011 performance in New York, the album is a strong set from the get-go (although I find it odd that the producers felt the need to include the admonishment to the audience to silence their cell phones). The first disc sports a varied set of 13 songs, beginning with the lovely a cappella “Breaths” before ripping through a set that includes African folk tunes like “Sabumoya”; blues workouts such as “Can’t Afford to Lose My Man” and “Love Me or Leave Me”; and folk standards like “Trouble in Mind” and “The Midnight Special”.
Many of the songs here were written by luminaries Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makemba, and the “Tribute” concept for the record grew out of the band members’ desire to honor their musical influences. Nina Simone’s “Come Ye” is an early highlight, with layers of vocals like waves beneath the overarching, gospel-esque melody. Each of these women has a voice remarkable in its own right, one that could be expected to front a band of its own, and combined into endlessly shifting combinations, the effect is transcendent. Individual voices take the lead on various tunes, such as Louise Robinson’s deceptively sweet, throaty take on “Trouble in Mind” and Nitanju Bolade Casel’s husky, jazzy “If I Should Lose You”.
Listeners expecting a pure a cappella experience may be surprised by the presence of backing musicians on piano and drums, as well as occasional violin. The music is tasteful and understated, but it does mark a departure, at least from when I saw them 20 years ago. That violin plays a part in the best song of the night, Disc 2’s “Another Man Done Gone”. This wrenching lament, hearkening back to slave times, is made all the more powerful by the fiddle’s stark drones, and Ysaye Barnwell is doubly impressive as the fiddler and vocalist. Elsewhere, there’s plenty of power absent any instrumentation, as with the multi-tune “Freedom Suite”, which incorporates a number of gospel and civil-rights anthems: “Oh Freedom”, “Glory Glory Hallelujah”, and others. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to jump up and change something, and a strong reminder of the power of art.
Despite all the highlights, and there are many, the album isn’t quite perfect. Disc 2 bogs down a bit in the latter half, as lightweight jazz numbers predominate, and the set’s finale doesn’t quite live up to the earlier excitement. The lite-jazz “Tell Me More and More and Then Some” and “Wild Is the Wind” are nice enough songs but they lack much visceral oomph; “Let There Be Peace” is well-meaning but, compared to some of the barn-burning stuff from earlier in the night, is something of an anticlimax.
No matter: despite whatever slight flaws it may possess, A Tribute is a strong album overall, and a breathtakingly virtuosic live document. Anyone unfamiliar with Sweet Honey in the Rock should remedy that oversight immediately; they are an institution in the best way, and one that does much to inject some hope and optimism into the contemporary social fabric. Listeners who know the band but who may have forgotten about them in recent years (it’s been five years since their last album after all) are urged to give this record a shot. Sweet Honey’s natural milieu is live performance, and they put on a show as good as anyone’s. This document testifies to that.