The Reverend shuffles on stage bare foot, bearded, and resplendent in a paisley kaftan embroidered with glittering thread, a leather vest, and a white wide-brimmed hat. The hat remains in place throughout the rhapsodic head shaking to come. He places a glass of whiskey on the floor by the piano and begins to play, his fingers fervently crossing the keys, and within minutes the crowd—previously retiring and shy as befitting a Monday night—are dancing, sweating, foot stomping, and swaying, shouting out the occasional ecstatic Amen.
This is Reverend Vince Anderson and his Love Choir, the longest running live show in Brooklyn, playing every Monday night for the past twenty years, mostly in the vaudeville style wooden theater tucked away at the back of Union Pool. The Love Choir comprises a rotating circus of local talent, including TV on the Radio guitarist Jaleel Bunton, always barefoot; Moisturizer saxophonist Paula Henderson, also the Reverend’s ex-wife; and on drums, Torbitt Schwartz aka. Little Shalimar a producer from Run the Jewels.
The crowd is a cross section of Williamsburg’s lost litter. A white haired man waves his hands in the air euphorically, while a gaggle of young Spanish students take selfies. A tattooed guy in leathers sings along in alto harmony and two girls in vintage rompers dance feverishly front of stage. It is an irreverent congregation here for the “church of the holy unruly” as the Reverend calls it.
People are often surprised to learn he actually went to seminary school. Vince Anderson’s life has been music and the church. Raised in a Lutheran community in Fresno—“the raisin and crystal meth capital of the world”—he was playing piano by three years old. “I knew how to play before I could read,” he tells me over coffee near his Bushwick home. “It’s the way I’m most comfortable communicating with the world.” In contrast to his head rolling, preaching, and piano bashing stage presence, in person he holds himself quietly, his hands folded neatly over his belly and his voice thoughtful. He recalls his family singing old hymns, American classics, and, his mother’s favorite, Johnny Cash, every Friday night, despite an alcoholic father and parents on a fast track to divorce. “Everything else was going to shit,” he says, “but there was an impulse to go to music to fix things as a family, and I still have that in me.”
Back at the gig, the first song he breaks into is an original, ‘Get Out of My Way’. His nimble finger work demonstrates the classical training behind the showmanship and whiskey swilling. He calls his music “dirty gospel” in an effort to “bring gospel back to its muddy roots”. He sings about love and God and drinking and screwing and heartbreak and loss, a distinctly humanist approach to faith. “I’ve always interpreted faith as a story,” he says. “The beautiful thing about myth is it’s like an artist being able to live in the world they created. The question isn’t do I or don’t I believe; it’s do I choose to live in this story or not?”
His relationship with religion wasn’t always so resolved. He had his first church job at 12 years old, and was involved in Christian youth groups, but even then he struggled with aspects of the church, such as its condemnation of homosexuality, and eventually rebelled while at college—the Conservatory of Music in Stockton—drinking and smoking, the usual.
He felt a calling to go to seminary in New York, but once in the grips of the city, this conflict deepened. He crossed a picket line of protesting nuns to see Scorsese’s controversial epic The Last Temptation of Christ and was deeply moved by Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of the artist’s urine. “Seeing that photograph was my born again moment,” Anderson says. “I started developing a theology of a humanist religion, not interested in the everlasting, but interested in us, in the here and now. I went to seminary because I thought I was going to be the great reformer, but New York City said reawaken the artist.”
These thoughts came to a head on epiphany Sunday. He went to Riverside Church in Morningside Heights and he remembers the pastor spoke on the true nature of Christian vocation. When Anderson went up to take communion, the pastor looked at him, and said, “Whatever you’re going through, God is on the other side.” The next day Anderson quit seminary. “It was the only time I can claim that I heard the voice of God, or what I perceived to be the voice of God, and all these years later that still rings true. I realized I had to get out of there,” Anderson says. “I had no idea what to do next. I was angry that God would take me 27,000 miles to New York City just to tell me he had other plans for me. ‘What the fuck do you want from me?’”
A friend recommended him for a piano gig at a bar on Avenue A, and he dived head first into the gritty 90s East Village scene. At the bar he would play gospel, because those were the songs he knew, until one day the bartender—without knowing Anderson had even been to seminary—wrote on the chalkboard, ‘tonight “Reverend” Vince Anderson’, and the name stuck.
“Soon people were coming to the show at the weekends and asking me to baptize their kids and bury their dead,” he said. “I was reluctant at first, because I was still angry. ‘I don’t want to be your pastor,’ but it became clear I was. I was ordained by the community. To me, that’s closer to what church is about.”
It took him a moment to work out what this de facto pastor position should look like in practice, but after 9/11 the realization was succinct. “We did a show at Pete’s Candy Store a few days later, and at that moment I realized I’m not playing a Reverend anymore. The age of irony was over. People were there for church.”
Ever since his Monday night show has coopted the best parts of church for the club setting, most importantly, singing together, something Anderson bemoans the lack of opportunities to do in this modern day.
I ask him how his faith has endured despite the shit show of American politics. “As long as there is humanity, there will be oppression,” he says. “You can be pessimistic about that, or you can choose to participate and resist those oppressive forces rather than mourn for a time that will never exist.” And resist he does; he’s the director of arts at Bushwick Abbey, which is in the process of becoming a sanctuary church partnering with the Iglesias de Santa Cruz.
Back at the gig, he plays a Jewish song to celebrate Passover; the audience sings along, shouting “Dayenu” and stomping their feet, a wondrous imperfect human noise. During the next number, a cover of Pete Townsend’s ‘Let My Love Open The Door’, the Reverend slips from song into sermon, standing front of stage to talk to us about love, how we should all be falling in love constantly—his words rising in energy, his face twisting with emotion—if we’re not falling in love, we’re not in love, because you have to be falling for someone to catch you, he says, adopting the impassioned cadence of a preacher, occasionally calling out, “can I get an Amen,” and we “Amen” unashamedly to any god we like or no god at all, and then back to the song, which by this point we’re all singing together. This is our church, I think. This is our Reverend.
All photos by Nicolas Maloof