Photo credit: Dylan Kaplan

Mary Elizabeth Micari
“I’m SOOO High!: Rev. Mary’s Reefer Revue”
Pangea – 04/06/19

Rev. Mary is an edgy, rollicking, big-voiced entertainer who has made a specialty of mining the 20th century songbook for tunes about the taboo.  In “I’m SOOO High!: Rev. Mary’s Reefer Revue,” the Rev. (Mary Elizabeth Micari in real life) and her All-Man Band revived obscure blues numbers celebrating jazz cabbage—you know, jive? Catnip? Tea?  Mary Jane?—with raucous good humor.

This is no gut-spilling autobiographical cabaret show.  Micari and her band have an off-the-cuff charm—cracking each other up, chatting casually with the audience, reveling in their own naughtiness—that epitomizes what a late-night club act should be.  Like the best hostesses, Micari makes her guests comfortable by being comfortable herself.  And she throws a good party.

The history of cannabis in America is little known, but it’s been part of the economy since 1619, when the Crown required Jamestown’s colonists to grow and export hemp to England.  As late as 1900, the ten-dollar bill sported an image of cannabis, representing one of the country’s staple crops.  It wasn’t until the 20th century that the drug began to be demonized and its recreational and medical use restricted.  The songs in the Reefer Revue date from this period of demonization and increasing restriction (1910-1950); coded outsider songs, by turns humorous, defiant, or just plain matter-of-fact.  

Micari shared the vocals with her two hunky and behatted backing vocalists, George Dixon and Mario Claudio.  They opened the show as an ensemble with the bouncy Are You Hep To The Jive? (Cab Calloway); then Micari took over the vocals, styling the blues for the tongue-in-cheek When I Get Low, I Get High (Marion Sunshine).  Between songs, Micari shared interesting weed trivia of the period.

Micari has a powerful lower register and her blues chops are impressive; in Bea Foote’s Weed, she treated us to her well-regulated upper register.  In addition to singing, she played a mean washboard (with her name picked out on it in sparkles), and took frequent solos on the kazoo.

Backup singer Claudio’s two solos—Here Comes The Man With The Jive (Leroy “Stuff” Smith) and Sweet Marijuana Brown (Leonard Feather)—were adorable; Dixon seemed less comfortable in the spotlight, or maybe his numbers—Save The Roach For Me (Buck Washington) and Champagne and Reefer (Muddy Waters)—were inadequately rehearsed.  Indeed, I felt that Claudio and Dixon’s presence was largely de trop—Micari could easily have carried the show on the strength of her voice and presence, and Dixon and Claudio often proved a distraction on the crowded stage.  On the other hand, their business with the music director—the excellent Dan Furman—on That Cat Is High (J. Mayo Williams), during which Furman, in shades, clowned stonedly at the keyboard, was a highlight (despite the fact that it too seemed under-rehearsed).

As the 1940s slipped toward the ‘50s and marijuana faced increasing criminalization, reefer songs began to reflect the changing drug landscape—with their customary humor: The G Man Got The T Man (Cee Pee Johnson), followed, inevitably, by All The Jive Is Gone (Earl Thompson).

There is nothing pretentious about these good-natured, simple, humorous tunes, and Micari and her All-Man Band have so much fun performing them that you might not even realize that you are in fact sitting through a deftly curated living museum exhibit reflecting the artistic response to America’s long and tortured (and ongoing) relationship with the act of getting fucked up.  

In addition to the lively, precise, and stylish playing by Furman, the band included Nori Naraoka on bass and John Dinello on the cajón.  Jay Michaels wrote and directed.