Last Friday night, female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock performed in K-State’s McCain Auditorium. There has been an outfit of that name, influenced by Spirituals traditions, working out of D.C. for forty years, so I think we can refer to SHR as “an institution.” Appearing in Manhattan were five singers and a sign-language translator.
The singers were educated and musically sophisticated, and they could be very winning. But the two sets they performed were very different, one from the other, and while the first was fresh and fascinating, the second was more familiar and was sometimes talky. Musicians, as we all know, get into trouble when they talk.
The first set was like nothing I’d ever heard before, nine or ten songs performed so deliberately and with so little emphasis on rhythm that the music seemed to come to us in slow motion. Elongations allowed brisk little improvisations sufficient space in time to get noticed. There was very little in the way of attack, and the group seemed to lean into the changes in the repetitive pieces as if the singers were audial sled riders.
Even the beginnings of the songs seemed to come out of nowhere—no counting off, no foot tapping, and no introductory catches to set the pace. The group came out in orange and black and rose outfits, took their seats in a row, and began the droning pulse song “Songs of Praise” in 3/4 time so slow that each phrase seemed to swell.
Disciplined and generally bell clear—the group was miked but well mixed—they passed around leads and hummed out vocal accompaniment surprisingly deep in tone. The harmonies throughout the program were dead on and the solo singing was inspired and professional.
A seventies children’s song called “Sea Lion Woman” got a nice and again a pulsing treatment, and then SHR sang Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me,” a couple of South African songs, and “I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River,” this last very slowly through three rich repeats, with two soloist performing atop the choral line.
Then we had the intermission. The group came back out, dressed in brown batique, and got pop.
And we started right off talking about what we were doing. The first set had been light on conversation. The audience liked the first number, a familiar sort of pop song with a lead soloist, a trailing second lead voice, and that a cappella rhythm line. Shortly after it began we got a little spoken introduction to it. Then the bulk of the singing. The wind down included some scat.
That start up, then spoken introduction, then song body became a familiar form during the second set. But before we got into the spirituals medley that was second on the list for the half, we got a little talk with reference to race. But it was brief and there was spectacular singing on the spirituals—including “I’m on My Way to Freedom Land” and “I Lay My Burden Down,” the latter featuring a tune familiar as the one for “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
The next few songs were about “freedom.” And there was some generalized political discussion—about gun control, for example. The singers wished for “better times,” perhaps not surprisingly on a day when the unemployment rate climbed and African-American unemployment remained two percent higher than it was four years ago.
Then there was a more blatant imitation of musical instruments in a walking bass song called “I Like It That Way,” one of the evening’s audience participation numbers. And there was an original song with a choo-choo train backing and a last spiritual complete with an interior monologue. The crowd of perhaps 800 seemed to enjoy the performance.
But few can have attended the show without noting how different the two halves of it were—the first set slow and technically advanced, or at least searching, and the second louder, quicker, and full of appeals both musical and spoken. Personally, I’d have preferred a full show of the former.