REVEREND BILLY AND THE STOP SHOPPING CHOIR
"THE EARTH WANTS YOU"
Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen) is a New York City based activist, performer and author who has spent the better part of 21st century preaching on the evils of consumerism and the crisis of The Earth. Reverend Billy developed his outrageous character preaching on the streets of Times Square, and has since become an international activist figure. He and The Stop Shopping Choir, a radical performance community of singing New Yorkers, stage non-violent creative actions around the world. Over the years The Stop Shopping Choir has performed in the lobbies of countless banks, The United States Congress, The Christmas Parade at Disneyland, and Monsanto’s corporate HQ as well as many popular theater, music and festival spaces. They move fluidly between protest and art, curated by occupy wall street, punk squatters and Laurie Anderson alike.
Reverend Billy’s message—which now includes a weekly radio show, stints opening for Neil Young on tour, and large scale performances and community actions all over the world—is perfectly articulated on The Earth Wants You, the fourth official release from Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. The eleven tracks on the record play like a joyful mission statement writ large: songs about climate change, revolution, empowerment, and community, reformist hymns sung by a Saturday night subway car.
The stadium-sized chorale of Earth resonates deeply. Tracks like “Fabulous Bad Weather” and “Revolution”–Do I hear a sound? From the rocks, from the ground, from the air? —vibrate with the same kind of intensity as a 70’s empowerment anthem: gospel-tinged Aquarian funk meets the stirring sing-along quality of The Polyphonic Spree or early Arcade Fire. The record gleefully skewers evils both specific (“Monsanto is the Devil”) and ideological (“We are the 99 %” is a kind of anti-apathy paean to personal responsibility), without ever sounding…well, preachy. And while there are multitude of voices captured on the record, there are specifically some amazing ones— Laura Newman and Nehemiah Luckett each give roof-raising turns on “Fabulous Bad Weather” and “Climate Change Blues,” elevating what could simply be viewed at first listen as a quirky protest record into the realm of true art. That a record filled with anthems of dissent manages to also sound joyous is perhaps The Earth Wants You’s biggest charm. It succeeds not just as a document of a movement or, as some may use it, as a kind of tool for activism, but also as a glorious, sprawling and truly inspired piece of music—fleshed out with a full band, a horn section, and a kaleidoscope of voices, including alto star Gina Figueroa who won a Grammy award for co-writing "Really Love" with D'Angelo. The communal spirit of the Stop Shopping Choir is perhaps best articulated via the a cappella of “Gratitude”—a track that addresses not only the highs and lows associated with the hard work of change, but the pleasure of coming together for a common good. To hear a chorus of voices singing, “Greet me as a friend, greet me as a stranger, I have got this gratitude” is both moving and inspiring—a reminder that it’s impossible to move forward without also pausing occasionally to take stock of what you already have.
According to Savitri D, longtime director of the project and producer of The Earth Wants You, the pleasure and power of working with a choir taps into a very basic human experience. “What is this? We're radicals, New Yorkers. We're singers. This music is how we meet the world, how we change the world- singing, shouting, saying what we mean.”
“The choir is the most diverse group of people I’ve ever been around,” says singer and longtime choir member Laura Newman. “The activist element, the bravery of our members to stand up for what they believe in- to start singing a song in a bank lobby and risk arrest? That unites us. The choir has the power to move audiences deeply. I’ve met people who feel they were literally “converted” during shows.”
For Reverend Billy, the release of The Earth Wants You is the next logical step in what has already been a long, strange, and impactful journey. At the time of the album’s release, the Reverend will also release a book of the same name via City Lights Press. His hope is that the record— along with the accompanying book and continued live performances — will not only be a tool for change, but a kind of antidote to the humorlessness that the media has come to associate with social activism.
“Our idea of bringing humor and music and marrying them to a statement of conscience is not a new concept,” explains Reverend Billy. “The labor and civil rights and gender rights movements inspired us all with their music. With our work, the activism comes first. We don’t model the traditional protesters, marchers and Internet clicktivists. We try to create a drama – maybe a funny or bizarre one - that opens peoples hearts. Our change must come in a passionate way, because life itself is on the line. These days it’s not enough to be again against tragedy and injustice. We need to be for life. As we say in the church, “Resist Extinction!” Life-alujah! Earth-alujah! We’re followers of Life on Earth. Isn’t that hilarious? Yes and it’s the only way to save our ass, too. Amen.
“You must check out the newest from my favorite transcendent and down to Earth preacher.” Laurie Anderson