Shout, Sister, Shout! A Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe – various
M.C. Records 0050
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is more than the godmother of gospel: she is the
proto-type female frontwoman. The gospel genre's guiding spirit and a de
facto influence on female vocalists throughout rock, pop, country and the
blues by way of her sensitive, yet powerful vocal range, Sister Tharpe is
more influential than many music aficionados realize. Helping bring the
blues to gospel's church community and spirited soul to the blues, Tharpe
straddled the two genres throughout her 30 year career. Never a household
name, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's legacy lives on through familiar female voices
like Joan Osborne, Janis Ian, and Bonnie Raitt, all of whom have adapted
Tharpe's trademarks to their own pop personas. So it's quite fitting, and a
tad bit touching, that many of modern music's leading female performers have
contributed to Shout, Sister, Shout! A Tribute to Sister Rosetta
Commemorating the 30th anniversary of the gospel icon's untimely passing,
Shout, Sister, Shout celebrates Tharpe's life and projects her legacy
through song, video, and an in-depth liner note biography. With a who's-who
of female frontwomen singing Tharpe's reflective thoughts and stellar gospel
inspired groups like the Holmes Brothers laying down each tracks backbone,
Shout, Sister, Shout is first and foremost an enjoyable gospel
record. Yet it's also an example of how artists as diverse as
singer-songwriter Victoria Williams and a cappela group Sweet Honey
in the Rock have incorporated Tharpe's style and spirit into their own work.
Opening with "Nobody's Fault But Mine," Joan Osborne, one of the disc's more
prominent names, uses her own blues background to highlight where Tharpe
married the blues and gospel. With the Holmes Brothers in toe, Joan Osborne
does her best Sister Rosetta Tharpe impression, wailing through one of the
singer's signature song. Known for her own mixture of blues, soul, and pop,
Osborne is a fitting choice to open Tharpe's tribute album. In fact, the cut
could fit on one of Osborne's own discs, a testament to Tharpe's continuing
influence. But Osborne, at times, tries a little too hard to be soulful,
losing the powerful restrain that made Tharpe so original. Perhaps playing
too close to her own work, Osborne offers not a new variation on a familiar
voice, nor a completely unique approach.
While Tharpe was an important American influence, her work never transcended
into political '60s folk. So the choice of including famous folkies like
Janis Ian and Odetta is an interesting one. All prominent and liberated
female performers, the songwriters use their tracks to reset Thorpe's
narrative style. Accenting folk music's stream of conscious texture and
placing it within a gospel framework, the album's folkish cuts are healthy
marriage of two Americana styles. Ian particularly shines on "This Train,"
while showing off her southern-country inspired picking. Modern rockers like
Michelle Shocked and blues star Rory Block also give Tharpe's work a go,
adding a bit of grit and attitude to the album. The all-star group
sing-along of the album's title track is also a tribute to church gospel,
with a call and response chorus and sacred singing that set the communal
tone of Tharpe's career.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe prided herself not only on her soulful vocal
abilities, but also her bluesy guitar style. An early pioneer of the
electric guitar in gospel, Tharpe "made the instrument talk," as the album's
liner notes say. A subtle and stark player, Tharpe set the stage for modern
country-blues star Bonnie Raitt, who here plays guitar behind Americana icon
Maria Muldaur. Raitts burning style is the best tribute to Tharpe's
instrumental abilities the album has to offer and compliments the disc's
many vocal cuts. Considered a flamboyant performer on stage, Tharpe used the
guitar to express her passion and Raitts quick, electric chords help
rekindle Tharpe's fire.
Another interesting addition to the album's roster is Marie Knight, one of
Tharpe's collaborators from the '40s. Performing a choice rendition of
"Didn't It Rain," a track co-written by the two women, Knight compensates
for her partner's absence. In fact, her song stands as the album's best
eulogy and a fine farewell to Sister Tharpe — a proper gospel send-off
Tharpe likely would have found inspirational.
Unlike many artists who earn high-profile tribute albums, Sister Rosetta
Tharpe's story is relatively unknown outside the gospel community.
Acknowledging this, the disc's producers aim to retell Tharpe's importance
within the gospel community through an extensive four-page biography that
chronicles the singer's rise. Written by Gayle Wald, who uses the brief
history lesson as preview for her forthcoming Tharpe biography, the notes
act as map to the disc's songs. They explain how Tharpe touched each
musician through her own personal struggles and ability to break down
musical boundaries. It also turns the album into a full-fledged tribute,
instead of an album of somewhat inspired covers. By digesting the entire
album, one gets a total sense of Tharpe's life, as well as her legacy.
Perhaps the most unique element of the album in its video footage of Sister
Rosetta Tharpe herself performing the traditional "Down by the Riverside."
The archival clip, recorded in the 1960s on TV Gospel Time, contrasts the
gospel queen with her eclectic prots. By nature, the icon has a sense of
authenticity, through her declarative, yet accepting, voice that climaxes
with the joyous burst of energy. It's a shame the audio track isn't on the
CD, for the cut is among the album's finest.
For many music fans unfamiliar with gospel's roots, Shout, Sister,
Shout will stand as a key starting place. It's an enjoyable gospel
record and uses a wide array of musicians to act as Cliff's Notes for the
singer's life and style. Though few tracks stand as strong of Tharpe's own,
it's an interesting way to learn about the multi-talented musician. But, at
times, the album does sound a bit uninspired, especially for one of the most
spiritual musicians America claims as its own.