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Michelle Shocked

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One of my favorite things is seeing an artist self-destruct onstage. My favoritest recent example was at last year's South by Southwest conference in Austin, when Michelle Shocked stumbled through a keynote speech of offensive stridency. The erratic singer-songwriter, who followed up the almost perfectly realized folk album Short Sharp Shocked with a bozo excursion into jumping R & B, Captain Swing, told the assembled what her latest left turn was going to be: an album that would expose rock 'n' roll's roots in "blackface minstrelsy." Her talk was rambling and so disconnected as to be almost incoherent, but its main points seemed to be first that rock 'n' roll was all stolen from black sources, and second that it had compounded this crime by trafficking in gross racial stereotypes. I'm not being sexist to say (Shocked trumpets it herself) that she got much of this reductive self-righteousness from her husband, Bart Bull, a talented but humorless and somewhat wacko former Spin writer whose articles tended to be about how Bart Bull was the only white man alive who really truly appreciated black music. It's a complex issue, but let me say two things. It's not like this is a discovery made by Shocked and Bull: Bands like Fishbone (which Shock singled out for criticism) derive their force from the confrontational way they address just this heritage. It takes an almost willful mental blindness not to acknowledge this. Second, the calculation that would take a potentially interesting issue--which resonates not just in rock 'n' roll but in all of popular culture--and turn it into a campaign to boost a flagging career bespeaks to me something approaching artistic bankruptcy. Speaking of which, Shocked's new record, Arkansas Traveler, contains one likable song, a rather clunky but pleasant ode to multicultural LA. The rest of it, her salute to the black roots of folk and rock 'n' roll, has all the right notes in all the right places, all the right sidepeople playing all the right roles. But it's kind of ironic that this stalwart explorer into the realm of black music couldn't muster the requisite amount of that crazy little thing called soul. Oops. These shows were supposed to include Uncle Tupelo and some remnants of the Band, but they're no longer on the bill. Now Shocked plays with Taj Mahal and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Thursday and Friday, October 22 and 23, 7.30 PM (the Thursday show is sold out), Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 929-5959.

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