Change-allelujah! Rev Billy gives hosannas to Obama


By Mary Reinholz and Lincoln Anderson

Pompadoured anti-consumer prankster Reverend Billy strode onstage at the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea’s Meatpacking District the Sunday after the election, delivering hosannas to President-elect Barack Obama, backed up by his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and a brass band.

Decked out in tight white trousers and shirt, the self-styled evangelist (a.k.a. actor Bill Talen) spouted “Obam-allelujah!” as he pranced and danced, a strobe-lit mix of Jimmy Swaggart and Little Richard, telling a packed house that Obama’s election ushered in a new spiritual era of sorts.

“We have a future to think about,” he shouted. “Another part of our brain has opened up! Our hearts have opened up to sex,” he added as the crowd cheered, several raising fists in black power salutes. “Our groins have opened up!”

The ribald rev recounted how he went to Harlem on election night, and said the jubilant scene on 125th St. showed that it was the crowd “making history. People were walking up and down and hugging each other!” he said. “They were dancing on the roofs. … It was the utter takeover of public space!”

Billy’s fans opened up their wallets to pay $12.50 for “regular” admission to his annual fundraiser, which announced the release of his “Shopocalpyse” recording. Others shelled out $25 for a “benefit” ticket with CD at the W. 16th St. venue between Ninth and 10th Aves. Back in Brooklyn, the progressive preacher hadn’t counted up the total haul the following Monday, but told a reporter: “Our rule is that we will sell things from the Church of Stop Shopping at the cheapest price and with our message. We have to embrace contradictions.”

Meanwhile, he and his group of agitprop performance artists are planning another demonstration to greet “the hordes” arriving at Macy’s in Herald Square on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, to purchase reduced merch on sale. 

“We’re going to tell them, ‘Buy nothing’ on that day,” Reverend Billy announced. He admits, however, that shop-a-holics in America may be fewer this year because of the economic crisis. “There are people who are coming to our faith because they’ve been forced to as they go into debt with the buy-buy-buy” credo, he said. “Their whole lifestyle is being called into question.”

After the Highline show, Reverend Billy and his faithful carried their revelry onto the Half Moon for a two-hour cruise up and down the East River. Although he didn’t turn the water into wine — and, thank God, because it was the East River — Billy did get the boat to make a pit stop at the E. 23rd St. dock to pick up more pizza.

While it was billed as a $75-a-head fundraiser for Billy and his choir, at the end, people were asked to contribute whatever they could, from $20 and up. “Shopocalypse” CD’s were also available.

The CD features a funky mix of new R&B and gospel tunes on subjects from Starbucks exploiting Ethiopian coffee growers (“You Stole My Sidamo”) to resisting brand-name product seduction (“Do I Have a Lover? Do I Have a Logo?”). The rousing, African pop-infused “Can I Shop Enough for Africa?” takes a poke at Bono: “If I stare into his wraparound eyes/is my goodness globalized?” “Back Away From the Walmart,” a favorite off their first CD, returns in two versions on “Shopocalypse.” There are even a couple of techno tunes.

Musically, the album is tight, with many soulful performances on vocals, horns, guitars and keyboards. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Reverend Billy record without some of his anti-consumer sermons.

Speaking onboard the cruise, Billy stressed that Obama raised people’s hopes, and now they’ll have to work to hold him to his pledges.

“Obama gave a promise — a moment in time,” he said.