Once upon a time—say, a little more than 20 years ago—Michelle Shocked was known as Michelle Johnston. And after graduating from the University of Texas, the young woman headed west with musical instruments in tow, and performed in a street band up and down the coast of California. “When I used to play with them, I had a little, teeny-tiny voice,” she says. “And now, between singing in a rock band and singing with a gospel choir, I was louder than that police siren. Did you hear that?”
Yes. Yes, I did.
Beside Tony Rosenthal’s Alamo (a/k/a the giant rotating cube near Astor Place), Michelle and Michael Sullivan (a/k/a Reverend Busker, a Shocked friend and street-corner accomplice) perform for nearly an hour. The set list includes Michelle’s “Fogtown” and “Cement Lament,” Michael’s “Becky’s Tune,” Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya,” and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore,” among others. Change accumulates in Michael’s guitar case, and with every turn in the traffic light, a new round of boot jockeys and busses—the M1, M2, M3, M8, and M14A—rumble by.
“In those days,” she says of her California years, “I wasn’t on a career track. I was a romantic poet, but I considered myself a political activist. And there was so much compatibility. It was a sustainable way to be a political activist.” That is, until a man named Pete Lawrence had the audacity to field-record the post-feminist folk singer somewhere near Kerrville, Texas, (hello, 1986 debut The Texas Campfire Tapes) and make Michelle Shocked an indie sensation in Great Britain (hello, “international star”) before she even knew she had a record out.
Shocked’s accidental career now stands at a dozen albums (count the live gospel ToHeavenURide as the latest) and more than a few memorable tunes, like “When I Grow Up,” which manages to somehow summon an acoustic breath of grounded whimsy appropriate for a young woman looking west while her feet are planted in Texas. And then there’s “Street Corner Ambassador,” the one song from 1996’s Mercury Poise disc (call it an early greatest-hits collection) that makes its way into Michelle’s Astor Place set.
For this, the guitars are laid down, Reverend Busker stands to the side, and Michelle does the solo thing a ca-fucking-ppella. She hits (hits, I say) the chorus, hard, then does so again:
And it’s toss into the old tin cup
A shiny copper penny
Sing along that old refrain
Can you spare a little change, man?
Can you spare just a little change?
Police sirens don’t stand a chance. And when she’s done singing with a voice now oh-so-much more than “teeny-tiny,” Michelle Shocked unabashedly works the line of her concrete congregation, hat in proffered hand. It’s something she hasn’t done in years. It’s something she likely won’t do again. “Once you’re Michelle Shocked,” she says, “the context is entirely different. I’m very self-conscious now. The context has changed so much that you can’t go back. You can’t go back to that.”
Rob Trucks’s “Possibly 4th Street” expositions, in which he invites big-shot musicians to perform live and impromptu somewhere in New York City, run frequently at the Voice music blog Sound of the City; check there for video of Michelle Shocked at Astor Place.
Michelle plays the Highline Ballroom December 9, highlineballroom.com