“Strange, strange, strange,” is the segue into the first song of Michelle Shocked’s long-delayed live gospel album To Heaven U Ride (which was recorded at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a full four summers ago), but not before a languorous opening interlude in which Shocked introduces every member of her band. Talk about strange. She doesn’t only introduce them; she sings each of their praises in a move that can only be described as fearlessbecause Shocked’s goofy, sing-songy tremolo seems to contradict her forceful personality, and it does the precise opposite of taking it to church.
I love Shocked’s oddness as both a singer and a DIY icon, but when she’s operating without structure, she sometimes reminds me of Dee Green’s indefatigable Miss Dinkelmeyer from the Three Stooges short Brideless Groom—you know, the one who showed up in Pulp Fiction. Shemp, as her vocal teacher, begs, “Sing with the throat, not with the bellow.” She responds, “Oh, you want it like a birrrrd,” all but shattering the windows behind her. Shocked manages to split the difference between both throat and bellow, and when her instrument is anchored to a solid song, which has frequently been the case through her storied career, she’s not simply unique, she can be galvanizing. It’s not surprising that Shocked, who at one point in her concert dares her audience to answer the question “Do I look like a gospel singer?,” hedges no bets. Standards by the Staple Singers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe rub shoulders with “God Bless the Child” and even one or two Shocked originals (“Quality of Mercy,” which she had written for Dead Man Walking).
While “God Bless the Child” and the sunny “We’re Blessed” are the album’s most credible high points, what truly end up sticking are the moments that, like the introduction, allow Shocked to bring the gospel genre out of its comfort zone. In that sense, the album’s centerpiece is “Cancer Alley Rap,” in which Shocked rattles off (for three-and-a-half uncomfortable minutes) a liberal litany of all things political—environmentalism, corporate politics, grassroots provincialism, racial politics, and the paucity of faith-based leftism—before her choir brings her back to the ground. “Sometimes all it takes is a prayer,” she laughs. Or another indefinable album.