One of the toughest tasks in music is for an acoustic act to open a show when the crowd is waiting for the headlining electric band. The task was unusually tough for Sweet Honey in the Rock as the a cappella quartet faced a large, sweating outdoor crowd at the Fort Dupont Summer Theater Saturday night. Not only did the four women hold the crowd's attention, but they stole the show from headliner Noel Pointer.
The Washington-based Sweet Honey in the Rock is best known for radical lyrics sung in lush black gospel harmonies. There was plenty of that. Several new developments, though, made their show more exciting than ever. On two songs dedicated to the liberation struggle in South Africa, the group went back beyond the gospel tradition to the African roots of percussive gourds, skittering bird cries and piercing shouts.
In "Easy Street Sure Ain't Easy," they brought the tradition forward to the doo-wop rhythm and blues style of the '50s. With leader Bernice Reagon singing the swinging bass parts, the other three women improvised strongly syncopated, loudly delirious scat syllables. It was political sock-hop music.
Noel Pointer played his blue electric violin in the jazz-rock style of Jean-Luc Ponty and Jerry Goodman. Pointer's playing was surprisingly subtle and lyrical, but it was often sabotaged by his mediocre band and his own formula funk compositions. Only on two long solos dedicated to early black fiddlers was he able to escape his band and fusion cliches to play with the expressiveness of the birdcalls and soprano voice he imitated. Pointer's attempts to play piano and sing trembling spirituals were so overwrought that they could have been British art-rock.