Hallelujah, Praise be!
I was raised in a delightfully heathen environment where dismissal of the ritual of religious engagement came as easily to me as dismissal of the underlying myths.
So I have always found it easy to resist the urge to join in with the hallelujah chorus in whatever form presented. I can watch with steely detachment (if some mild curiosity) as the more vigorous of the Southern American church sects throw themselves into frenzies of praise and adulation.
In this context I was perhaps a little unprepared for Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir blasting out their righteous message in the very appropriate setting of the former St Swithin’s Church (now Norwich Arts Centre) on Sunday evening. For the first time ever in my long life I found a man in a dog collar preaching a message that I could get behind one hundred percent. Reverend Billy was born William Talen in a strict Calvinist family in Minnesota and has balanced theatrical performance with activist politics for many years. His pitch is anti-capitalism, and environmental awareness and sustainability. He is barred from every branch of Starbucks in the World, so based his first book on the title of their staff advice note “What Should I Do If Reverend Billy Is In My Store”.
The show starts with the choir emerging from the back of the auditorium, singing, clapping and dancing, and the twelve choir members on this tour soon pack the NAC stage. They are dressed in the brightest of colours and they echo every word from their leader, who is dressed from head to toe in white suit and boots with a black clerical shirt and white cleric’s collar. He looks a bit like a suit inverted Johnny Cash, with the same mean and moody look to him.
The choir charge through five numbers with increasing vigour and enthusiasm, at times coming amongst us to spread the message of love, peace and ending world capitalism. During one song about the dogs of capital they appear to get completely carried away with their dogged determination. At the end of this they gradually resume their stage positions, readjust and replace their clothing all the while singing and responding to the Reverend.
The audience claps and whoops along, getting into the spirit of the occasion to an unusually high degree for a Norwich crowd. May even have yelled out a bit myself. I know, I know.
When we are all roused it is time for the Reverend Billy to start his sermon. He seems tired, slightly hesitant at the start of his peroration, turning to the choir for help and support. Maybe nine shows in nine days is taking its toll. But our faith in the Reverend Billy is soon rewarded, as he gets into his stream of consciousness delivery of the key message.
It is fair to say that Donald Trump does not get a glowing report from Billy, but his presentation of Trump as essentially a comedy act accidentally promoted to high office gives the most useful analysis to date for me of Trump and how to respond to him.
His core message is not about bumptious individuals, however. It is about all of us. It is about how we are so seriously abusing the gift to us of an incredibly beautiful and diverse planet to live out our lives. This diversity of life is represented by the Stop Shopping Choir. For this UK tour there are twelve of them representing the New York melange of different ages, ethnicity, orientation and presentation, but every single one of them can sing and dance with the passion of a true zealot, and they all have their lead roles in this impromptu drama. This ensemble includes Savitri Durkee who now directs the church performances and is Billy’s partner.
Taking a tour of thirteen people on the road to community venues can be a bit of a challenge, and in the bar later Billy tells me of the rigours of tour bus life, where sleep is snatched in a few hours as they rush around the country to welcoming venues. But even at the end of this tour, their energy is irrepressible as they sing an improvised tribute to the people in the UK who made this tour happen. As they formed their chorus once again, they did not ask me to move out the way, just said ‘you are in the choir now, you bass or tenor?’
Billy is moving on to give some talks across Europe, but I am sure that he will soon be back in New York with his full 36 plus member choir interrupting the relentless greed of capitalism one bank and coffee shop at a time. I can’t think of a finer way to gently but firmly point out that the folks who dominate our lives right now have got it so wrong.
As Billy would say – Earthelujah!
© Julian Swainson 2017
Read more about Reverend Billy here: http://uk.businessinsider.com/profile-of-william-talen-better-known-as-reverend-billy-2015-2