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September 19, 2005

Sweet Honey - as timely as ever

Flint Journal (MI):

The idea of a group of black women singing spirituals, freedom songs and protest songs these days must seem quaint to a generation weaned on music more concerned with bling and sex than empowerment and dignity. But in 1973, when Sweet Honey in the Rock started, it was a hip, radical, even a noble notion. Their mission was fueled by the victories, and tragedies, of the Civil Rights movement, but there were parallels to today - namely our country was mired in an unpopular war and our embattled president was a little too secretive for his or our own good.

The women of Sweet Honey didn't sound dated or out of touch during their Saturday performance at The Whiting, the opening concert of its 2005-06 Spotlight Series. They sounded timely, they sounded at times happy, inspired, angry and weary, whatever the songs called for, and, as you might expect from a six-woman a cappella group, they sounded rich, full and in sweet harmony.

The seven women of Sweet Honey (including a sign interpreter) sought to empower as well as educate with their songs. It's a concept that never seems to run out of time. The turnout was fairly sparse - about 900, a little less than half-capacity - which tells you what a hard sell the concept is these days.

But the message wasn't lost on the enthusiastic audience, which eagerly sang along, clapped time and applauded a particularly inspired vocal from one of the women. Their messages - raise your voice, speak out, question authority, love your fellow man - always need to be heard. They're reassuring if nothing else. Groups like Sweet Honey come along to remind us of these things.

With a repertoire stretching from West African traditionals to topical originals about the ravages of drug addiction and the human cost of tragedies like the school shootings at Columbine, the women of Sweet Honey sing beautifully about everything from hopelessness to unabiding faith.

They sang about the despair of slavery on standards like "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," using a slow, deliberate delivery at first, then building to a powerful, sudden finish. They offered deliverance with a rousing version of the spiritual "By and By" and opened the second half of the program with a beautifully understated version of "Precious Memories."

They also let their politics be known, praising Flint's Michael Moore for his willingness to speak out before launching into "Change," and turning Donnie Hathaway's "Trying Times" into an indictment of the current administration's policies while engaging the crowd in gospel-style call-and-response vocals. You don't have to agree with their message to appreciate their gift. Stressing subtle arrangements over clutter, the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock let their soaring voices and their obvious conviction remind us that matters of the heart and spirit will always reign over the material world.

Posted by acapnews at September 19, 2005 9:33 PM