Bushwick’s Hard Swingin’ Holy Man Hits The Big Screen

Whisk together the genetic material of Captain Beefheart with that of an ecstatic storefront preacher and you might conjure the singer Vince “the Reverend” Anderson, in all his Falstaffian glory. For over two decades, this ordained preacher and gospel musician has plied his trade at clubs like Union Pool in Williamsburg and at the Bushwick Abbey, the Episcopalian church on St. Nicholas Avenue, where he works as a minister. Now, he is the subject of a feature length documentary, which debuted to acclaim last year at Doc NYC.

The Reverend is the feature-length debut from Nick Canfield, a self-identified lapsed Episcopalian from the Upper West Side who says he once worked as a camera assistant to the late Albert Maysles, of Gray Gardens fame. The “direct cinema” aesthetic informs the look and feel of his movie. On the phone, Canfield tells me that he’s been a fan of Anderson since, roughly, the beginning of the Obama Administration.

“The music is incredible,” he says. “And it’s, like, a spiritual experience for all these people from all walks of life, in the most unlikely place to have a spiritual experience.”

A younger Reverend feeling the spirit.

Some of the movie’s most compelling scenes, however, weren’t filmed by Canfield, as his movie makes liberal use of concert footage from Anderson’s early years performing in Williamsburg.

One shot of grainy footage shows an accordion-wielding Anderson and a friend playing in front of striking Domino Sugar Factory employees at a now-bygone waterfront bar. (The factory also closed for good in 2004.) Raw as the footage is, it shows Anderson appear to win over the grudgingly appreciative crowd of working stiffs. The added historical dimension was a deliberate choice for Canfield, he says.  

“Yes, [Brooklyn] has definitely changed. I’ve seen Union Pool itself change. So, the story of the place and how it changes is all part of the film,” he says.

But while Anderson’s audiences may have changed over time, the infectiousness of his performances remain the same. In another scene, he leads a newer crowd of tattooed millennials in an unabashedly joyful rendition of “This Little Light of Mine,” over at Union Pool. Canfield’s footage shows spectators caught up in the ecstasy of the moment.

Anderson was born and raised in Fresno, California, and grew up playing both religious and secular American music; he worked as the musical director of a local Lutheran church at the age of 12. In 1995, he moved to New York to attend the forward-thinking Union Theological Seminary, but he dropped out just a semester shy of graduation.  

“My artist side started having a rebirth, I guess you could say,” Anderson told me in a Zoom interview. “So that was it: God wanted me to leave seminary, and that’s when I started playing in bars.”

While Anderson was never ordained through the seminary, he did end up getting anointed through Revolution Church, a non-conformist institution he founded with Jay Baker, son of famous evangelicals Jimmy and Tammy Faye Baker, whose life was recently dramatized in last year’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

The church, more of a state of mind than a physical location, met in the back of Pete’s Candy Store, a popular bar and music venue near McCarren Park.

The Revolution Church has since folded – the younger Baker eventually moved to Minneapolis to found another church. The weekly show Anderson started there with his band, the Love Choir, moved from Pete’s to Black Betty – now the Commodore – and from there to Union Pool.

In 2009, Canfield attended his first Reverend Vince show and, six years later, he successfully pitched the idea of a documentary to Anderson and began shooting what would become The Reverend, which also includes scenes of Anderson’s daily life at home and several talking heads.

Whether performing or reflecting on a subway in the late afternoon, Anderson is rarely seen sans lid.
Anderson and his partner, Millicent Souris, celebrating their nuptials.

Last spring, the band returned to Union Pool, but were a temporarily   relocated to TV Eye in Ridgewood following a fire at their long-standing weekly home. They’ve been back since the bar’s reopening in early August.

As for the film, Canfield says he’s planning a nationwide run of other art house movie theaters and has plans for a streaming release in the winter. A soundtrack album is currently being put together from some the live performances, an idea Canfield successfully pitched despite initial trepidation on the part of the Reverend.

“He’s always a little wary of being recorded, because he’s such a performer and feeds off the audience,” Canfield said. “He’s preaching onstage. People in the audience come up to him and hug him, and they come backstage and tell him about losses they’ve had, and he talks to them, and you can tell he’s doing real work in the community.”

Vince Anderson’s band plays on Mondays at Brooklyn’s Union Pool, at 484 Union Avenue.

Images taken from “The Reverend.”

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