Holly Near likes to laugh.
According to the 59-year-old folk singer, actor and activist, this might surprise some people who aren’t familiar with her concerts. But throughout the course of her career, which has spanned more than 40 years by her count, Near has found that laughter can be the most important thing.
“When we traveled with the Chile group [last December], people were dying over there, and they laughed all the time,” Near said during a phone interview from her home in northern California’s Mendocino County. “If people are dying, one has to hold on to dear life to the things that are worth living for, that’s our humanity. Humanity is often expressed through dance, music, food and laughter.”
When Near performs at 7:30 tonight at the Eighth Step at Proctors Theatre with Emma’s Revolution, aka Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow, no doubt there will be music, dancing and laughter. And maybe a little food. “We’ll give people food for thought, how about that?” Near said.
At the time she spoke, Near had just returned home from a 10-day tour through California, the Midwest and Massachusetts, also with Emma’s Revolution. Next month, she’ll take a break to possibly begin work on a new album.
Holly Near and Emma’s Revolution
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight
Where: The Eighth Step, GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
How much: $25
More info: 434-1703 or www.proctors.org.
“I’m not taking any concert dates over the summer. So we’ll see what happens,” Near said.
Near began touring with acoustic guitar-driven duo Emma’s Revolution after her pianist, John Bucchino, took a leave of absence this year to work on a musical with actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein.
“I thought, I can either use a substitute pianist, or try something different and not be comfortable,” Near said. “It’s good for [Emma’s Revolution] because they get access to my audience, and it’s good for me because I get access to their talent.”
According to Opatow and Humphries, Emma’s Revolution has been getting a positive response from Near’s fans.
“For us, there’s a whole audience of people we haven’t had much access to that Holly’s had from years of performing,” Humphries said during a phone interview on Wednesday, May 14. “Her audiences love what we add to Holly’s music, and they love our music.”
Many of Near’s songs, which for the most part have been performed exclusively on piano, turned out to be quite adaptable to Emma’s Revolution’s singer-songwriter style.
“She has a broad enough range of material, and certain things were really quite adaptable to the format we’re working in,” Humphries said. “It’s been fun for us to stretch in [her] direction, and it’s been fun for her to stretch more in our direction.”
Near has a long history as an advocate for peace, women’s rights and other social and political issues. She began her professional career as an actor, with appearances in the 1970 Broadway production “Hair,” TV shows such as “All in the Family” and a role in the 1972 film “Slaughterhouse Five,” based on the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. novel.
However, the Ukiah, Calif., native soon focused on her music. In 1972 she became one of the first women to start her own independent record label, Redwood Records, which operated for about 20 years. She has performed with Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, among many others, and has taken part in numerous social and political movements, including the Free the Army Tour in 1971.
Near still tours and records on a regular basis, with 2006’s “Show Up” being the most recent of her 26 albums. Since the album’s release, she has focused on reissuing much of her back catalog. Last December, to coincide with her aforementioned trip to Chile, Near reissued “Sing to Me the Dream,” a recording of her 1984 Peace in the Americas Tour with Chilean ensemble Inti Illimani.
“I first met them in the early ’80s; they had been living in exile from Chile for many years,” Near said. “I invited them to tour the U.S.; they were living in Europe. We recorded a few of the shows, and released it as a record and then a cassette, but it never went to CD. When I knew I was doing the reunion concert, I went back to the original material and put additional material on it.”
Near’s experiences in Chile are documented in her notes on her Web site, www.hollynear.com. During her trip, Near was invited to Villa Grimaldi Park for Peace to sing at the closing ceremony of a year-long remembrance for women who disappeared under Augusto Pinochet’s regime. While there, she unveiled a new song, “Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida.”
“They wanted me to come down and sing this song out of . . . a reclaimed prison that has been turned into a peace park,” Near said. “[The song] calls out the names of lots of different women who are missing. There was a wall with dozens of names of the disappeared. It was very challenging, and hard.”
Focus on politics
At home in the U.S., Near’s attention has focused on the Democratic presidential primary election, or rather her frustration with the process.
“People are so frustrated by this damn primary. So they’re relieved to hear us sing and talk about things that are actually relevant,” Near said. “For a few states to be determining the outcome of the leader of the most powerful country in the world doesn’t make sense. All citizens should be deciding. . . . When I talk to people outside the United States, they say, ‘What? The U.S. is around the world killing people in the name of democracy, and you guys have superdelegates?’ ”
Near remains adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq, as fitting for an artist who has been a vocal supporter of peace throughout her long career.
“Ideally, I would love for everybody to be very visible and vocal in their opposition to war — it’s so unproductive and costly,” Near said. “I’d really like people to fess up to whether they think it was OK for U.S. policy to kill nearly a million Iraqi people. . . . The trillions of dollars, I don’t know how many zeroes are in that number, could be being spent for things that really are national security. National security is having a healthy, educated population.
“So there’s a lot of despair, and what we try to do at the concert is create an environment of healing and spirit raising within the context of truth telling,” Near continued. “It’s not Pollyanna, oh, everything’s OK. It’s rising up to a more powerful spirit raising, having spirit in the midst of truth.”