Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group of five female singers, performed Friday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall for a double celebration: a benefit for 125 years of YWCA of Northeastern New York, and 40 years since the group was formed.
The players sing without instruments, just voices. The show ranged from American spirituals to upbeat African chants. The women rotated the lead vocal, often offering a short lesson before the song. Before singing “Greed,” Louise Robinson asked, “Where did caring about one another go? Where did mortgages go? Jobs? Healthcare?”
The group fell into a multi-layered, five-part harmony. One, and sometimes two, of the voices took the bass lines — at one point they were harmonizing the bass line.
“The government shut down? What is that?” Robinson asked while the group sang the chorus, repeating the word “greed.”
They sang the song “Do,” as in, “I’m going to walk when the spirit says walk,” calling on images of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Aisha Kahlil led a haunting original song on dreams, delivering melodic, hypnotic groans.
The a cappella ensemble has moved through more than 20 members over its four decades. Kahlil has been with the group for more than 30 years.
Her sister, Nitanju Bolade Casel, led the next tune, a beautiful West African melody, using call and responses and light hand drums to create percussive momentum. Their harmonies were controlled and polished. With five voices, the sound had a rich texture, covering a considerable part of the scale.
A sixth member translated the songs into sign language, something you see more and more at rock shows at the side of the stage. But Friday night, Shirley Childress Saxton sat with the group, on stage, as a full member.
Kahlil led the group through “Freedom Never Dies,” talking through it about fighting for voting rights. The song told the story of Harry Moore, who was killed in the 1950s while fighting to register Florida voters. The group stood to sing the final verse and chorus. They did this through the night, standing for some songs, sitting for others.
Calling the government shutdown complete “disrespect” of the American people, Casel said, “I wake up saying fire them all. ... They work for us. ... They forgot.”
They sang a powerful “Woke Up this Morning with My Mind on Freedom.”
Afterwards, Casel stepped out front to teach the audience a song, as well as a lesson in “affirmation.” During this lesson, the other four vocalists swung a bass line, some strumming an air bass (acoustic, of course) and mimicking horn sounds..
Kahlil sang a straight-up love song toward the end of the set.
“This song is about the kind of love that doesn’t need a big bank account,” she said before injecting one of the few humorous moments in the show, “but it does need a bank account.”
Mie Fredericks did not speak much, nor lead vocals often, but she held the center down while her partners wandered above and below her on the scale.
The hall’s acoustics carried the distinction of all five voices right to the back row. A band would have complicated matters and buried the subtlety of their choreographed vocal arrangements. It was a nice night for music, uplifting political messages and celebrating two worthy institutions: the YWCA and Sweet Honey in the Rock.