If you've ever heard the right Reverend Vince Anderson sing, you'd swear he pulls double duty as a tin-can-eating geek in a traveling freak show. You'd bet your last lucky dollar that he flosses his bleeding tonsils with a fiberglass hose, wears barbed-wire scarves, and gargles thrice daily with a quality blend of assorted razor blades.
Hailing from Brooklyn, he spreads his "dirty gospel" from town to town with a throat-splitting, guts-and-gravel yowl that is ferociously carnal. When the music gets a bit more intimate and folksy, he can wrap his raspy whisper around a tragic tale as well as any modern troubadour. From the tip of his pointy beard to the top of his porkpie hat, Anderson looks like a young Dr. John, and he sounds, even eerily at times, like Tom Waits at his howling best.
"My bass player played with Tom Waits for a while," Anderson says. "And Tom has definitely heard my stuff, because he asked, 'So what's up with this Reverend Vince? I like his voice.'"
Anderson makes the case that if he sounds like Waits, it's because he sings in the gutbucket tradition handed down from any number of obscure bluesmen to Captain Beefheart and from Beefheart to Waits and from Waits to whoever. To hear the reverend explain the phenomenon (traces of defensiveness and interview fatigue duly noted), his music is neither heist nor homage. And if he is sussing on somebody, it ain't Waits.
"There are a lot of people who can't get past what I sound like. They think, This guy sings like Tom Waits, and that's as far as it goes for them. But if they really listened, they'd see the guy I'm ripping off is Johnny Cash."
Cash, whose life has been mythologized into an epic coupling of faith and human frailty, is clearly the Rosetta stone for understanding the God-haunted Anderson. The reverend's own bio (which some have advised to take with a grain of salt) reads like a modern morality tale. It tells of a restless seminary dropout who was in sync with Christ, love, and charity (the whole nine yards, really) but who just couldn't find any of that inside of organized religion. So he put his messiah where his mouth was and took his gospel to the streets, singing songs about a workingman's Jesus who knows too well what it means to be human. He transforms Satan into the ultimate party pooper, a nasty little man using all the infernal powers of hell to take away your fun.
Anderson can cover Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" like a barroom Gabriel and turn Abba's "Dancing Queen" into the saddest song you've ever heard. And when the spirit moves, he can make asses shake like the Holy Ghost was upon them.
"I've been trying to figure out what it is that I do," Anderson says. "People ask, Are you a blues singer? Are you gospel? As near as I can tell, it's the same thing. It all depends on who you're singing to. If you're singing to God, it's gospel; if you're singing to the devil, it's blues. I make my nest in that area where gospel meets blues, where the sacred meets the profane. And I guess you call that rock-and-roll. Of course, Johnny Cash figured all of that out long before I was even born. He was interested in this his whole life."
So what is up with this alleged minister? Is all the God stuff just more rock-and-roll schtick, or is he sincere? All you have to do is ask him what's on his mind to find out. He doesn't talk about his recordings or his tours. His thoughts jump immediately to matters spiritual and political.
"There are two things going on in the religious life of America right now," Anderson says. "First there's The Passion of the Christ. And then there's George W. Bush's religious 'fervor' and all the B.S. about gay marriage. From my point of view, these are some pretty heavy-duty distractions that are being made. If you read your Bible, the bottom line is this: Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. There are maybe two verses in the Bible about it and one is in a list of laws that says cutting your hair is punishable and so is touching the skin of a dead pig. Does this mean anyone who has ever played football is going to hell? I've tried to identify with more conservative Christians lately, but there's just no give and take.
"I've tried to stay away from politics," Anderson says, sounding almost disappointed in himself. "But I was just working on a new song called 'I Don't Think Jesus Done It That Way.'"
The Reverend quotes his newborn lyrics about a subway minister full of hellfire and brimstone and telling crowds already burdened with their day-to-day affairs that they are all going to die. Depressing stuff. He recites a verse about seeing Jerry Falwell on television blaming the atrocities of 9/11 on New York's sinfulness. And then Anderson repeats a simple refrain. "I don't think Jesus done it that way," he whispers. "I don't think Jesus done it that way." The more he speaks about Jesus and the modern condition the more obvious it becomes that his religiosity is more than a gimmick. This isn't the Reverend Horton Heat or Billy C. Wirtz. This is a deeply spiritual man using what talent he has to make the world a better place. Well, at least for the span of a three-minute song.
Anderson's connections to Memphis run deep. He's often played with Jack Yarber (Oblivians, Tearjerkers, etc.), and, when in town, he's been known to shack up with none other than Prince Mongo.
"Mongo dropped me off for an interview on Rock 103," Anderson says. "He said, 'Tell them you've been out traveling through the cosmos, and you got to Memphis because Mongo got up in his treehouse with a chicken bone and a magnet and pulled you down.'"
The reverend also plans to record an album (all about food) at Sun for Mike Condon's Wrecked 'Em label, and he's been dreaming about Cozy Corner ribs since the upcoming Memphis show date was booked.
If you can't catch Vince Anderson's show at the Hi-Tone this week, his fine albums The 13th Apostle and I Need Jesus can provide all the dirty gospel a hapless sinner needs.