Toshi Reagon and her band, BIGLovely, have been playing a series of birthday shows for 26 years. It's a tradition. And with tradition comes familiarity, comfort. This year, people crowd Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan not simply as fans, but as friends looking to spend the night listening to stories, conversing about past shows and current events, and to hear their favorite songs. For the duration of the performance, strangers and friends alike sit and stand together as a small community. This is not a chapter ripped from some utopian novel, this is not Woodstock -- it's not trying to be -- still, it's hard not to get absorbed in what her fans call "church."
This, of course, is a product of the music and a musician who, although disarmingly friendly and talkative, takes her art very seriously -- midway through the show, Reagon stared down a group of fans for laughing during one of her more intimate songs saying, "I'll give you your money back and you can leave." Respect.
But even in the act of awakening fans to the profundity of creative self-expression, Reagon is a dispensary of energy and warmth. She owns the stage both when she's singing and when she's talking, whether it's leading a back and forth of her song "Scorpio" with the crowd (um, it's clear she wants one), or talking about how people think nothing is happening in Brooklyn. "It's bad enough that the Knicks have sucked for the last 10 years," she said. "And you want to give us the Nets?!"
To put it simply, as her friend and fellow artist Michael Arthur said, "Toshi herself is a force of nature." Arthur, an accomplished artist in his own right, is the archival artist for Joe's Pub where he draws live in response to the live music.
Performing on stage, Thursday, January 27 -- the first of four consecutive performances celebrating her birthday -- Reagon performed a bulk of material off her new album "There And Back Again" in addition to some older favorites.
She kicked the night off with "Standing In The Rain" a well crafted folk, pop song that instantly drew the crowds' appreciation. Soon, the band had worked their way through the set playing whichever songs popped into Reagon's head as they went along (she doesn't use a set list). The band oscillated between funk, soul, folk and rock, each song evoking a different emotion, sound and philosophy. The mixture of polished musicianship with a penchant for the unpredictable -- at one point BIGLovely singer and acoustic guitarist, Judith Casselberry, took over the stage for a rasta riff, bringing the crowd to their feet -- added an organic aspect to the show that Reagon admits she was aiming for.
Often artists are defined by a certain period, their mood, what they're listening to, the anxiety they are feeling etc. These emotions can often make for great art (see Radiohead's "Kid A," Gil Scott Heron's "Winter in America," Joni Mitchell's "Blue," Bill Evans' "Conversations with Myself"). But there is something to be said for the artist on the other side, the one who's emerged from the experience of relentless self-criticism calm, relaxed, completely self-assured.
It is unavoidable to get the sense that Reagon is an artist completely comfortable with herself, her purpose and the music she creates. It bleeds through the lyrics of each song and her soft yet profound disposition on stage. She's not looking to set a new trend or shatter the current music paradigm, she's making good, sensible folk/funk music with a purpose that demands your attention and in many instances, your participation too.
In the final song of the night she quietly performed "There And Back Again" only to be joined by her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon of The Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in The Rock, singing gently from her seat in the back of the crowd. For a few moments as their voices coalesced, it was clear to everyone: Reagon's certainly her mother's daughter, but this big lovely is an artist all her own.
BIGLovely is comprised of: Catherine Russell (mandolin and vocals), Adam Widoff (electric guitar), Robert Burke (drums), Fred Cass, Jr. (bass) and Judith Casselberry (acoustic guitar and vocals).
There and Back Again will be released in Spring 2011. Visit Toshi's website for updates, to check for upcoming tour dates and to sample her songs.
Photographs were provided by Laura Turley.