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Singing Out Loud

Folksinger SONiA puts hippie idealism in action.



"I've never been in a battle situation like that, but I'm glad I went," Rutstein says via phone from Baltimore. "I played all over Israel, and it was very different whether you were north or south … but I found that most of Israel wants peace."

Rutstein was supposed to perform at WorldPride 2006 but had scheduling conflicts with her own shows. She says the overall experience of touring the region gave her renewed hope. In that spirit, she's donated tracks to a benefit CD and is planning to send an acoustic guitar to a Palestinian village (where she also performed) as a donation for the girls' group Flowers Against the Occupation.

Back home, Rutstein, who came out years ago, is an outspoken activist for the gay community. She's being followed by a documentary film crew while performing with a mobile-Jeep-sponsored tour that allows up-and-coming artists to play public city spaces using speakers from the vehicle. The tour stemmed from promoting the first urban SUV that Jeep has made, Rutstein says, and the idea was to pick singer-songwriters for their "willingness to go into uncharted territories."

While Rutstein's brand of political folk is nothing new, she's been doing it long enough to establish her own voice, which is honest and unyielding — think Phil Ochs, her "biggest songwriting hero," and Janis Ian bearing a love child that came out stomping like Ani DiFranco. Lyrically, her songs try to avoid knee-jerk opinions, and she has often written about working-class Americans, even soldiers.

"I try to respect the choices of people and what they feel," she says. "I think most of the answers in either red or blue political spectrums are really Band-Aids. There's a common, deeper ground where we need to start."

Rutstein got her own start in 1987 playing music with her sister Cindy, who in the mid-'90s opted to forego life on the road for motherhood. Rutstein continued as the solo artist, SONiA, with her reconstituted band, disappear fear, featuring Laura Cerulli on percussion and vocals, and Angela Edge on bass and trumpet. Her 1994 album, "No Bomb Is Smart," was nominated for a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

"The idea behind disappear fear is that when you get rid of fear between people, what you have is love," Rutstein says, ever the optimistic hippie chick. "It seems primitive to create laws that prevent consenting adults from loving each other."

Her show at Ashland Coffee and Tea will be a benefit for Equality Virginia, a statewide lobbying and support group for the gay community. While recent polls show a slim majority of Virginians in favor of the gay marriage amendment, Rutstein notes that there are probably a lot of wealthy gay Virginians who could make a difference but who remain quiet out of fear.

"I would never tell them what to do, but I do think their fear perpetuates an ignorant situation and sets a negative message for the next generation of Virginians," she says.

Rustein adds that the gay marriage initiative is "really just a way for the Bush administration to divert attention from our real problems: the dollar shrinking on the international market and this ridiculous war — which is really about the oil companies — wasting most of our money."

Her ultimate goal is to help people express themselves more openly: "I think it would be healthy if we all spoke up, and got much louder." S

SONiA and disappear fear play Sept. 28 at Ashland Coffee and Tea to benefit Equality Virginia. Tickets are $25 and available only at the shop.

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