CD Review of To Heaven U Ride by Michelle Shocked
Recommended if you like
Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, k.d. lang
Label
Mighty Sound
Michelle Shocked:
To Heaven U Ride

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I
n the years since she engineered her exodus from the major-label system, Michelle Shocked has forged an artistic path every bit as willfully unpredictable as you might expect from a woman who sued for release from her Mercury Records contract on the grounds that the 13th Amendment prohibits slavery. (Or, come to think of it, a woman whose second album’s cover consists of a photograph of herself in a police chokehold.) Put another way, it might have seemed a trifle unusual for any other artist to arrive at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival and play a gospel set. Not Michelle Shocked.

Likewise par for the course is the fact that these recordings sat undiscovered for years. Shocked’s debut album, 1986’s The Texas Campfire Tapes, was a live performance famously recorded without her knowledge; at Telluride, Shocked’s contract forbade recordings, but nobody told the film crew covering the shows for a DVD project. A few years later, someone realized the show was sitting around waiting to be released, and here’s To Heaven U Ride.

An ardent musicologist, Shocked understands the relationship between gospel and rock better than most of her contemporaries, and there certainly isn’t a surplus of gospel sets on the festival scene, so To Heaven U Ride has all the makings of a nifty little live album – which only makes it that much more of a disappointment in the end.

The album’s deepest flaws are sonic. Shocked performed that day with an honest-to-God gospel choir, and the band is game, but this isn’t a gospel stage, and it isn’t a gospel crowd. Listeners may expect – and will deserve – to hear a sweaty, rapturous combo, powered by full-throated drums and rolling piano, with maybe a dash of B-3 to make things extra spicy. What you get is a neutered combo, all tinny keys and percussion, played for a crowd that wasn’t expecting this and wouldn’t know what to do with it even if they had been. Compounding these difficulties is Shocked herself: She’s a fine singer – better than fine, really – but listening to this set, you’re liable to last only two or three songs before you start actively wishing she’d dial it down. She was feeling the spirit here, to be sure, but her constant wailing overpowers the band, not to mention the songs. Even worse is her between-song patter, which ranges from where-the-hell-is-the-fast-forward-button dull to closing-scene-of-very-special-episode-of-“Full House” embarrassing.

It isn’t a train wreck, but you can easily find better versions of every single song here – particularly standards like “The Weight” and “Wade in the Water,” or classics like “Uncloudy Day.” Shocked’s conviction (and her willingness to release undoctored live performances) is to be commended, but for all but the most fervent of Shocked completists, To Heaven U Ride is to be avoided.

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