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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Toshi Reagon's birthday show at Joe's Pub carried a timely activist message

Toshi Reagon "I Go Higher"

Not that the politically-charged Toshi Reagon's shows are otherwise without urgency, even her annual series of birthday celebrations at Joe's Pub. But this year's second (Jan.26) of five such shows with her monster rock band BIGLovely—she had three more in different formats, including a "Sacred Music" program tonight featuring her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon—packed even more wallop, what with the darkening storm clouds blowing worldwide out of Washington, D.C.

It all boiled over right away on first song "I Go Higher," a basic call-and-response folk song, as Reagon noted after stopping it after the first verse to chastise the full house for a weak response. Further characterizing the song as a "revolutionary singalong" ("I go higher" is followed by "and I won't back down"), she lectured sternly about "the tyrant running the land," one who had declared the direction he would take the country and is now "actually doing it."

"You can no longer be calm in these spaces," Reagon continued, her voice taking on the soft but impactful preaching tone of her mother--the founder of the historic African-American a cappella folk-roots vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"You must participate and get yourself together," she said. "If you're not with us, you'll definitely be alone."

For it's "past the point of separating entertainment from protest," Reagon added: Every song "now matters 1,000 percent."

"Don't let me talk to you about this again!" she finished, and it was funny, yes, but no less pointed. Leading into the next song she commanded, "Everybody sing!"--and everyone did. Still, it was hardly the end of sober discourse, for soon enough Reagon turned to "the president's mental illness."

"It's nothing to laugh about," she said, referring to mental illness in general, and President Trump's specifically. "There are very real repercussions of this man being president of the United States. There can be no more making fun of him as we have in New York for decades."

She forcefully encouraged the audience members to visit the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., starting with the artists represented on the fourth floor and working down to the basement slave ship representation.

"It will align your spine for this movement," she promised.

"You will never vote for a rich white man again [and] you will understand why we march."

"You might not like Trump," she continued, "but you don't know how deep it is: You need to understand that that man is captain of the boat." Captain of the boat, she said, with all the power that that position entails.

"Learn who you're dealing with, Reagon concluded. "It is not a joke."

She was backed, as ever, by a powerhouse all-woman band. Upfront, besides Reagon on acoustic guitar, were vocalists Josette Newsam-Marchak, Stephanie McKay and Judith Casselberry (she alsoo played acoustic guitar). Behind them were violinists Juliette Jones and Lyris Hung, electric guitarist Alex Nolan, bassist Ganessa James and drummer Allison Miller. Flutist Allison Loggins-Hull guested on a couple songs.

The net effect, no surprise, is what Sweet Honey in the Rock might sound like had it not originated over four decades ago and focused on traditional African-American folk music. For again, Reagon furthers her mother's political and social awareness and activism while lifting Sweet Honey's into contemporary hard-edged music territory.

And Toshi Reagon also uses modern recording methods, explaining that "For No Other Reason," which she played at the end of the set, was produced using such cost-cutting measures as first sending it out via Dropbox in order to afford her desired 10-voice chorus.

The encore was the anthemic "Ella's Song," written by Bernice Johnson Reagon and performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, to honor late African-American civil/human rights activist legend Ella Baker: Never more timely, it centers on Baker's famous pronouncement, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest."



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