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Pop Music : Holly Near: Social Causes, Private Convolutions

Holly Near may be one of the most distinctive performers on the pop-music stage. Who else has a list of concert credits that ranges from Carnegie Hall to Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua? And has performed as an actor on “The Partridge Family” and, in her own words, become associated with gay and lesbian culture?

Near’s concert at the Embassy Theatre on Saturday, however, was not the work of an eccentric, fringe-area activist. Despite Near’s insistence on supporting what clearly are to her the linked causes of social and individual liberties, despite a recording history that has steered clear of mainstream distribution, she is a gifted and effective singer and performer.

Moving easily from such intensely personal songs as “Fire in the Rain”’ and “Imagine My Surprise” to warm, musically concise readings of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Over the Rainbow,” Near blended the cool folkiness of a Judy Collins and the intimate private convolutions of a Joni Mitchell with a self-confident, up-front, declamatory style that is singularly her own.

She was at her best on several songs from a new Chameleon Records album--especially the title track, “Singer in the Storm,” and the stirring “Great Peace March” and “Harriet Tubman (Lifeline).”

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It would be nice to think that Near’s visibility might increase as the result of wider distribution with a large company, but one suspects that her activist sentiments may continue to be a bit too extended for audiences who still expect women in music to be, as Near put it, “helpless waifs or red-hot mamas.” Near is neither, but she is one of the most accomplished and worth-hearing performers of her generation.


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