© 2003 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
Hey, folks, a quick turn-on: look for an album called SHOUT, SISTER, SHOUT! It's a tribute to the late great Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I confess I heard of her for the first time last month, in that PBS Blues series--but the three minutes I saw riveted me. Big old black lady singin' gospel, better than most, had a voice onto her like God's car alarm...but what made her stand out was that as she sang, she was accompanying herself on a big-ass nasty, funky, raunchy, dirty electric guitar, playing it like Chuck Berry with a hard-on, through an overloaded amp. Blew me away. Resolved to look her up when I got time. Then found this album and got my mind blown bigtime. Then, happened to learn last night on a TV obit that Sister Rosetta was Johnny Cash's favorite singer of all time. Synchronicity...
Second confession: I'm not really all that much of a gospel guy. I don't dislike it, and God knows I love what people like Ray Charles and Leon Russell perverted it into, but I couldn't name a single current gospel star, or many past ones for that matter; the only gospel album I ever really got into was one Aretha Franklin cut over twenty years ago.
But this CD repeatedly made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It is so damn good you keep wanting to pause after each track for five or ten minutes, to just let it resonate. Anthology albums almost always have at least one or two tracks I could do without. Not this one. Throughout, the harmonies are...well, there must be a less obvious word than angelic. Ethereal? Spine-tingling? And the lead vocals all soar and wail like Zelazny's rakasha, creatures of flames.
The album was organized by Maria Muldaur, and she got pretty much everybody who's anybody to come out and play; Sister Rosetta must be loved by the cognoscenti. Among the guests who came to the party: Odetta, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Joan Osborne, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Ian, Phoebe Snow, the Holmes Brothers, Michelle Shocked, Angela Strehli, Tracy Nelson, Marcia Ball, Rory Block, a stunner named Toshi Reagon, Victoria Williams....and Sister Rosetta's old singing partner, Marie Knight, who closes out the album with "Didn't It Rain?".
I thought Maria Muldaur's RICHLAND WOMAN BLUES last year was the very best female-vocals album I'd ever heard. Now it's tied with this one. Not too surprising; they share some of the same personnel, and the central vision and inspiration of Maria.
I think Sister Rosetta would have been pleased. The album's only glitch is an unfortunate one: the bonus track promised by the liner notes, a video-clip of Sister Rosetta herself in performance, is in fact not there; at the last minute it turned out the damn thing just didn't work. But the music is good enough that I know I will now be hunting down Sister Rosetta Tharpe records, so that's okay.
Check it out. Stunningly, it has been a stiff in sales terms; the Canadian distributor (my friend Holger Petersen) tells me it has sold fewer than 400 copies up here, and has done no better proportionally in the States. Damfino why: it's a genuine classic.