The Gospel according to Reverend Billy


Reverend Billy’s Tent Revival with the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir


The South Street Seaport, Pier 17

Sundays Through October 1, and September 11th


Fred Askew Photography

Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir inside the Spiegeltent this past Sunday.

Amidst the pumping fans and unforgiving mid-day summer heat, Reverend Billy welcomes his audience to the Spiegeltent, a wooden structure beneath the Brooklyn Bridge that is part circus, part saloon, and on Sundays with Billy, an hour of religious revival. While the six-piece band plays a groovy blues introduction, the leisure-suited Reverend shakes hands with his parishioners.

“I have heard of your sins,” he says in a gravely voice. “They are legendary.”

But the sins he speaks of have little to do with the bible, and in fact, this “Reverend”— Bill Talen — didn’t even attend divinity school. Instead, he is a traveling poet, theatrical producer, and performance artist, who joins the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir in weekly shows and frequent store boycotts, all in worship of anti-consumerism. Amidst the mirrored pillars of the Spiegeltent, their message is loud and clear as the yellow-robed choir dance and sing, “we won’t shop again.” The devil they fight is the temptation to slurp lattes at Starbucks, ogle lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, and collect power tools from Wal-Mart.

Raised by right-wing Christians in Western Michigan, Talen was first drawn to become a man of the cloth by the Guiliani administration’s gentrification of Times Square.

“I was catering at the time and had a white tuxedo top,” recalls Talen. “So I bought a collar and started preaching in front of Times Square Disney store. My theology was different: Mickey Mouse as the anti-Christ.”

The show, which is directed by Talen’s wife, Savitiree Durkee, takes pains to separate the choir’s image from real-life religious leaders like Billy Graham. He calls his devout counterparts “God-wackos,” commenting that “believers are killing us.” While he wanders through meandering diatribes that target government, corporations, and religious honchos, the choir keeps it light with upbeat harmonies like “Thank You,” an ode to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Cesar Chavez, or a lively duet by “Sister” Gina Figueroa and “Brother” William Moses called “This Town ‘Aint No Supermall.”

With the price of tickets, viewers get a free six-song, six sermon DVD entitled “Preacher Feature,” directed by Rob Van Alkemade. It shows Talen on his Shopocalypse tour through California in 2004. Talen has also taken it through Colorado, Ohio, and Switzerland, where he and selected chorus members engaged in civil disobedience and occasional arrests in order to confront corporate giants that he believes are putting mom and pop shops out of business, polluting the environment and supporting governmental corruption with Along the way, Talen has made occasional pleasure pit stops, like a recent detour into Vermont to perform weddings and even baptisms, in which he wishes newborns freedom from consumption. The upcoming intercontinental tour will include the Biennale De Paris, which will end just in time for the choir to begin publicity for their upcoming movie, “What Would Jesus Buy,” to be released around the holiday season alongside a book of the same name. Between these far-flung destinations, Billy and his choir perform as artists in residence at the East Village’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery Church.

The eclectic choir’s spirited actors, musicians and activists alternate between rich melodies and playful recreations of the sounds of the Canadian Boreal Forest, which slowly grows quiet as it is clear-cut to create the pages of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

Rich-voiced choir director James Solomon Benn’s authentic sound comes from a childhood in the church. The son of a Methodist minister, Benn first saw a televised production of Talen’s performance at the Fringe Festival, and found he could combine his childhood fondness for gospel with a modern-day activist twist.

Tenor John Quilty had just auditioned for the role of the dancing fork in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast,” when he came across an ad for the choir, promising travel to London and Burning Man. Paul Allen, who had worked as a classical singer with the Boston Symphony, found himself right at home creating harmonies composed of idealism and humor. “It’s more of a community than a choir,” he says.

Billy and his choir have been banned from the South Street Seaport mall area, where his protests have enraged store owners. As audience members stroll out of the makeshift house of worship, they are met by rows of enticing store windows, back-to-school clothes and fast food beckoning, weakening the resolve of even the most devout anti-materialist. While he can’t save all sinners, Talen hopes his words will at least open his viewers’ eyes to the dangers that lie beneath a label.