Concert Review: Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near (The Eighth Step, Albany, New York, September 29, 1996)

Ronnie Gilbert was one the of the founding members of the Weavers, a legendary folk ensemble (which also featured Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman) that dared to sing about peace and equality during an era when doing so was considered to be subversive. Holly Near grew up listening to Ronnie Gilbert’s music, and honored her inspiration by dedicating her second record, A Live One, to Gilbert. The inspirer, in her turn, then became the inspired when some of Near’s songs were selected for performance as part of the exquisite Weavers documentary, Wasn’t That a Time — Gilbert had long been a fighter for peace, for workers and for civil rights, but Near’s magnificent song-writing and inter-related activism led Gilbert to expand her own involvement into the women’s and lesbian rights movements.

Near and Gilbert recorded Lifeline, their first duo album together in 1988 (they had previously recorded together on 1985’s HARP, but they had Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger on-board as fellow musical travelers). The duo got together again this year for a single show, but (as Gilbert noted Sunday night) “somehow it all got away from us”. The Eighth Step show, as it turns out, was the eight concert on a twelve venue tour — and just to make sure folks had something to take home with them after all these shows, Near and Gilbert decided to record a new album entitled This Train Still Runs.

Sunday night’s show highlighted the two women’s strengths as soloists, allowing each to stretch out and belt or sing it sweetly and softly as the spirit moved them. Both performed to magnificently supportive piano accompaniment from Janet Hood (who usually played with Gilbert) or John Buccino (who typically baked Near). Gilbert in particular pushed the edges of her titanic range when she jumped from the “sweet, simple ol’ song” (her words), “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to a devastating two-number set from her play, Mother Jones: American Agitator — she spat the first song of that set in feisty, gravel-voiced abandon over a boogie-woogie piano figure, while the second found her ruminating in declamatory mode on labor unions and their merits. Near’s solo highlights came during her spine-tingling jaunt through “Change of Heart” and her over-the-top theatrical reading of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”.

Then, of course, there were the duo numbers, on which Gilbert’s bossy contralto and Near’s contra-bossy alto ran rough-and-tumble over each other in pursuit of perfect pitch and phrasing. Particularly noteworthy was the late-evening trio of “praise songs” by Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs. If you ever have to fully explain the concept of “America” to someone in ten minutes or less, I would recommend that medley, as performed by those women, as the center-piece of your training. The audience also got a special guest duo treat when Gilbert called Ruth Pelham, of Music Mobile fame, to the stage for a whirl through Pelham’s “Activity Room” — no one quite remembered all the words, but they had a damn fun time trying to do so.

The evening closed with audience singalongs on two signature songs: Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” (a Weaver’s staple) and Near’s “Singing for Our Lives”. Near and Gilbert have blazed musical and social trails through (between them) three-quarters of a century, but somehow all their ideas and all their songs still sound fresh. Methinks that’s the truest mark of genius there is.

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