In a period when a cappella is celebrated - platinum-selling Pentatonix, hit films in the
series - it's the moment for Sweet Honey in the Rock. For 40-plus years, Louise Robinson and Carol Maillard (both founding members), and Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, and Shirley Childress (an American Sign Language interpreter who has performed live since 1981) have displayed the gorgeous tones and textures of blues, gospel, and jazz as well as the traditions of their African heritage, sans instrumentation.
The only thing more intricate than their rhythms is their gorgeously complex harmonies, all heartily on hand at Annenberg's Zellerbach Theatre on Saturday, with a "Honeyman" - bassist Romeir Mendez - bringing an impressionistic groove to a few cuts.
Though masquerading as a holiday show - the night started with individual members strolling on stage, each clipping a line from her favorite Christmas song before launching into a percolating "Jesus, What a Wonderful Child" - the gig was a plea for peace and prayer for every season.
Once you heard their layered dynamics-rich version of "Silent Night" with its "Mr. Sandman"-ish vocal pulse and wafting new melody, you were spoiled for other groups of carolers. The glory of intercession came through as clappy gospel song on "Somebody Prayed." "Nativity Suite," penned and produced for the American Bible Association, owed as much to Philip Glass-like repetition as it did talky Winans-stylized cadence. It spoke of Caesar Augustus' census taking and the Bethlehem of Jesus' birth. Stirring stuff.
The program also acted as a history lesson, touching on soft classics such as "We Are," where zigzagging vocal lines and scatted rhythms (mostly from Casel and eventually Kahlil) connected the dots from Jesus to every child's birth where "the morning star rises and sings."
The currency of the 1 percent wasn't allowed to stay with a ferocious few in "Greed." In the hands of Robinson, the song's lead, avarice was within us all; a covetous tale told in singsongy soul with a shekere's tapped percussion. Most effective, though, was the woeful, wondrous "The Women Gather," a slow song in which Casel connected to the mother of the late Michael Brown as well as her own college-age son. "Crying tears that fill a million oceans," Sweet Honey in the Rock did more for antiviolence with that song than 100 protests as their mournful voices pierced the night air.