The 2016 Presidential election really lit a fire under Rev. Vince Anderson. That was a dreaded wakeup call for just about everyone, but it really pushed the bushy-bearded, wild-haired keyboardist and jamband leader to new levels of intensity. “Get off that magic rectangle,” he admonished the crowd more than once a couple of weeks ago at his ongoing Monday night residency at Union Pool. “Just turn around, look at your neighbor and introduce yourself,” he cajoled.
That moment turned out to be infinitely less awkward that it would have been in a house of worship. A vacationing Georgia couple were wide-eyed; they admitted not having the slightest idea of what they’d just wandered into. “He’s a New York institution,” explained the tired but obviously reinvigorated black-clad man next to them.
In the years since Anderson first started playing his first weekly residency at the old Avenue B Social Club in the East Village, he’s switched out any kind of overtly Christian message for a community-centered, populist philosophy that he’s really concretized and brought to the stage since last year’s November surprise. And while gospel music is still the foundation of what he plays with his raucous, semi-rotating backing band the Love Choir, these days his sound is more funk and soul-oriented. The songs go on for ten minutes or more, with all kinds of dynamics, ferocious and stampeding, then hushed.
There was a time when he’d always open the show with Get Out of My Way, the pummeling first cut on his 2002 album The 13th Apostle: the studio version is a mashup of Gogol Bordello, Tom Waits and oldschool gospel. These days, Anderson plays the song closer to lickety-split Billy Preston funk…but he also likes to bring it down to a lusciously glimmering classical piano interlude. This guy can literally play anything.
Over the past couple of months, he’s also opened with a rapt, quiet take of the gospel standard Precious Lord, Take My Hand, and with Ready for the Light, a relatively new number that’s sort of symphonic James Brown. His best song lately, which he’s been playing at pretty much every show, is a new version of his slow but mighty gospel anthem I Don’t Think Jesus Would Have Done It That Way. Anderson wrote that one in response to the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq, but the new version is even more incendiary. Anderson takes potshots at Trump and the swamp cabinet and Steve Bannon in particular: it ends with everybody that Trump hates – immigrants, gays, women and, hell, pretty much all of us – having a barbecue on the White House lawn.
Watching the audience react is fascinating – and sad. Much as this is one of the rare Williamsburg events that draws both a local black and latino crowd as well as the young Republicans hell-bent on taking over the neighborhood, the former contingent here is a lot smaller than it used to be. And the song doesn’t get the enthusiastic reaction you might think it would: there’s a lot of polite silence, and a little clapping, mostly from the women – there are always a handful of Hillary supporters. Obviously, the young Republicans come here to to dance, not to be confronted by any reality that would threaten their rich parents’ dominance in the political sphere, never mind their real estate bubble profits.
But the crowd be damned – the music is fantastic. The first couple of shows in May were on the lacklustre side since the band had a sub guitarist who obviously didn’t really get the music. On the third and next-to-last Mondays in May, regular axeman Jaleel Bunton was back with his psychedelic bluesmetal/funk attack and the energy suddenly went back through the roof.
The second Monday in June, Bunton was absent again, but in his place was the brilliant Binky Griptite, the late, great Sharon Jones’ lead guitarist, who brought his elegant, virtuosic, low-key Hendrix-inspired lines to the mix and as usual elevated everybody in the band. The week after that was Moist Paula Henderson’s birthday, so Anderson gave her a feature in an old audience favorite, the nocturnal waltz New Orleans, 4 AM. His longtime baritone saxophonist, musical sparring partner and “ex-wife,” as he’s called her for the better part of two decades, responded with her usual blend of irony, humor and irrepressible fun. The group had a great drummer that night, too – it was the bartender!
They had their usual guy behind the kit, Torbitt Schwartz, back the week after, for a little extra slink alongside most of the regular band, which also comprises bassist Jeremy Willms and trombonist Dave Smith.
Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency continues this Monday, July 31 at around 10:30 PM. And Henderson’s weekly residency with Binky Griptite continues on Wednesdays in August at around 8 at Threes Brewing, 113 Franklin St. at Kent Ave in Greenpoint.