The Gospel of Toshi Reagon

I've been wanting to catch Toshi Reagon at the Rubin Museum for a a few years now. The Rubin runs this series called Naked Soul that's unplugged, up close and intimate---you and about 100 other people in a room, with no amplification at all for the artist or their tools. Just pure sound. Given how much can be distorted and amplified these days with pedals and effects--and that most artists put at least a little reverb on their vocals when performing--it really is "naked," real, and raw to get to hear someone live and unplugged like this. I heard Melissa Ferrick last year on this stage and very much enjoyed it; I was no less disappointed last night with Toshi.

Toshi usually performs with her lovely band The BIGLovely and often with an array of talented women musicians (to her credit- as someone who actively supports women artists through The Songbird Series), she really creates and hold space for women artists. Much appreciated, Toshi!  Last night, appropriate for the unplugged simplicity of the night, she was joined by Juliette Jones on fiddle. As someone also performing soon with a fiddle player (take note: upcoming show at Rockwood), I was especially interested in how Juliette would work with Toshi's sound and I really liked it. She sat the first one out, and then joined Toshi, rifting out on some numbers and adding in a minimalist way on others---at turns bowing, plucking, and "chopping" (stacatto style fiddle!) and also at times playing a long, lonesome drawn out note like a drone.  

Toshi opened with a song that I LOVE... a cover from an album (Kindness) that she brought out years ago that I don't think I've ever had a chance to hear her perform live ("The eagle takes the wind, my friends, the eagle takes the wind..."). Performed a song she wrote for her daughter (Big Light), a sultry song about taking someone down to a cold  pool (inspired in part by the art she chose for the show from the Tantric exhibit--at the Rubin, the artist chooses several pieces from the museum's collection to sing about) and quickly got the whole audience singing with her.

She also did a song about the New Jersey Four (a group of young lesbians who got jailed for years in response to a homophobic attack in the West Village, based on "gang" laws--even though they were simply friends out together for the night). As a protest song--or a song about a current event-- it stood out in that there was nothing about the story or what happened or any call to action (like "old school" political folk). The whole song--on a lyrical level- was basically one line: about the sun shining through the rain. The underlying message: Things suck. Including the criminal justice system in the U.S. And hang on---you'll get through this. While the song itself did not have a call for action, between and after,  Toshi definitely did: calling on all of us to get involved---if we're not willing or able to get out on the streets, then to write a check to support someone else who will.

Toshi's  family is from southwest Georgia and from a preaching family, and the fruit has not fallen far from the tree. Like all of her shows, she shared a lot from her life and her views on things--preaching what I call the gospel of Toshi (often focused on us white folks waking up in some form--Amen!) and, especially of interest to me, about music. I loved her anecdotes about her and Ani DiFranco----how Ani writes songs with lots of words, and Toshi doesn't--it's all about the sound/ the music, for her- and how, in her tradition, that carries the lyrics---and that one time the two artists swapped, with Toshi trying to write an Ani style song and vice-versa. Ani's attempt at a Toshi song was, "If you're not, If you're not, If you're not having fun by now, at this age- you're dong something wrong!"


What really stood out for me in the whole evening was Toshi's performance of a song that's been so over done and abused and you'd think worn out (from endless summer camps and parodies of the 1960s--and actual 1960s) that it really takes guts and conviction to perform. At first, thanks to her musical arrangement of it, I didn't even recognize it---but then when she started to sing "Come by here..." I realized, wow, this is completely new and 21st century Toshi Reagon version of Kumbya. And she totally pulled it off. Here I thought earnestness and sincerity were  so dead and old school (which means I'm in trouble too!). But, as true of the Rubin art art she was talking about, that also focused--like much in the African-American tradition-- on calling in larger forces to help when you're down and in trouble, this song has real meaning for Toshi. She shared that her mom---Bernice Johnson Reagon (of Sweet Honey and the Rock fame) says that people make fun of this song because they're actually uncomfortable with it and afraid of its power. 

I'm already looking forward to Toshi's next show at the Rubin, which seems to have become an annual event. But get your tickets early-- I missed last year's show because it sold out, and last night was also a full house. I'm clearly not the only one wanting to get naked with Toshi. :)  

If you want to catch her in NYC again soon, she'll be at the Apollo Theater June 11th.

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AND if you haven't noticed-- this is a BLOG. Mus(ic)ings will be I hope a weekly or at least bi-weekly sharing of my "musings" on music--on shows I've seen, new albums, what I'm thinking about as an artist, thoughts about the music industry (sorry- that will probably be depressing!). Part of me can't believe I'm doing this! I already have a very busy more than full time day job, rent a place out to make extra $$ via AirBnB, AND am working musician myself... but I noticed how much I was thinking and writing about stuff like this in other ways... it was all in a big mosh pit in my head. Hopefully this will help me unravel and sort through my own ideas and, I hope, and create a sense of community. Thanks to Dawn Orlando of Funkadelic Studios for suggesting it! 

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