Songwriter Holly Near clearly was among friends at the University of the District of Columbia last night. When she sang, "We are gentle, angry people and we are singing for our lives," the capacity crowd forcefully chimed in. When subsequent verses were altered to include "anti-nuclear people" and "gay and lesbian people," the response was even stronger. Just as Near knows her audience, her audience knows Near.
Not everything she sang during her first set was as impressive as the sense of solidarity she immediately established in the auditorium. Like Joan Baez, Near has a pure and lovely singing voice; but also like Baez, she has a habit of tailoring her melodies to fit wordy, sometimes didactic lyrics. The song "Family Promise," for example, with its anti-nuclear thrust, seemed more message than music.
But she didn't overdo it. There were many moments when she advanced her causes with grace, humor and intelligence -- not just in song but in several personal reminiscences, including an especially funny anecdote about her high school days as a football queen.
Near was preceded by songwriter Toshi Reagon, a young and very promising singer, whose personality proved to be as warm and as winning as her music.