This was the debut release of the famed collaboration of feminist-activist songwriter Holly Near and Weavers female lead vocalist Ronnie Gilbert, recorded during their premiere North American tour in 1983. Practically all of their best songs are on this one collection--from a reworking of the Weavers' hit "Good Night Irene" to Near's civil rights anthem "Singing for Our Lives", and a solid folk-based repertoire in between. The two women's voices are aptly supported, but never overshadowed, by Jeff Langley's lyrical piano accompaniment anchored by the work of a bassist (whose name currently escapes me).
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Near and Gilbert complement each other vocally with such skill and effortlessness that one may wonder where each voice begins and ends. Both voices are blessed with control and power, though Gilbert's voice showed clear signs of aging--she was in her late 50's at the time. Gilbert's mellow contralto contrasts with Near's more brazen mezzo-soprano, and both voices are capable of enough volume to nearly blow out your speakers if you're not careful with the settings. The two trade melody and harmony lines back and forth with remarkable ease, and their emotional commitment to each song is never less than fully convincing.
The subject matter of the songs spans the full range of progressive activism, contributed by authors such as Woody Guthrie ("Pastures of Plenty" has hardly been covered better), Bernice Johnson Reagon ("Biko", an anti-apartheid anthem), Charlie King ("Two Good Arms"), and, of course, Holly Near herself ("Singing for Our Lives" and a rewritten "Hay Una Mujer Desaparacida"). Other Spanish-language songs include the Spanish Civil War song "Si Me Quieres Escribir" and one of Mercedes Sosa's greatest hits, a somewhat subdued "Gracias a La Vida". My only quibble with the song selection is that the romantic showtune medley was a bit overlong and disjointed--but Holly is obviously enjoying the theatricality of it.
During the Reaganesque 1980's, terms like "liberal" and "feminist" were widely demonized and denigrated; and some reviewers savaged this album merely for being feminist and topical. But some brave souls refused to hide their true artistic and political sentiments in those days--and we can thank Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert for offering their best efforts in both art and political statement.
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