Sweet Honey In The Rock: A Tribute Is "Breathtakingly Virtuosic"

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Monday July 15, 2013

From PopMatters

Sweet Honey in the Rock: A Tribute
By: David Maine

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.

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