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Songs Near the Picket Line

There may be no singer-songwriter with a beefier activist pedigree than Holly Near. Before she was 10, Near had performed for a Veterans of Foreign Wars talent competition and volunteered her vocals at the Taimage Mental Hospital. At 17, she was protesting military recruiters at her high school in Ukiah, Calif. In 1970, her cast of the Broadway production Hair held a silent vigil for the Kent State shootings and in 1972, Near worked as a receptionist for the Pentagon Papers trial. In protest of nuclear power, she led a women’s delegation to Hiroshima, and in 1981, she became one of the first out lesbians to be interviewed by a mainstream magazine (People). More than 30 years later, the Noble Peace Prize-nominated Near still has much left to say.

Her recently released 29th album, Peace Becomes You, is a two-disc set with 28 songs featuring 22 musicians. This enjoyable yet jumbled behemoth of a record runs the gamut from Irving Berlin standards (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance”) to gospel-tinged collaborations (“There’s a Meeting Here Tonight”) to earthy originals. 

On “One Good Song,” Near with a voice hovering between the likes of Joni Mitchell and Erin McKeown — laments the talking heads of talk radio (she’s talking about you, Rush Limbaugh) and the title track is a tender serenade to a fellow activist (“The way you stand on a picket line for a living wage” is to Near as “The way you wear your hat” is to Frank Sinatra). One of her strongest moments on the album is “In the Shadow of War”: a swinging piano tune that addresses torture and weapons of mass destruction, leaving listeners wanting to snap their fingers and march in protest simultaneously. 

The album falls a little flat when Near veers away from originals. Although pleasant, nothing new is explored in “Sway” or “Dream A Little Dream of Me.” And her take on Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy” feels out of place. It’s clear that Near sings best when she sings what she knows, and when she does, she nails it.

Holly Near plays 8 pm Thursday, Oct. 25, at Unity of the Valley; $27 adv., $29 door.