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For over 60 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have traversed higher ground together. Since forming their group at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, they have kept alive the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music. Founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott -- along with more recent arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler -- have drawn upon gospel's river-deep reflections on life's trials, and mastered its haunting falsettos and vibrant, muscular harmonies. And at ages when most men have retired from life's spotlight, they continue to command the music's heart-pounding vigor as meditation erupts into foot-stomping, rollicking celebration.
Remarkably, the Blind Boys not only represent the highest standard of a charismatic American musical tradition -- they also extend that tradition. Gospel has always nourished blues, rhythm-and-blues and rocknroll, so it seems only natural for the Blind Boys to have found a calling in transforming popular song back into consecrated writ.
Thats been a favored aspect of the groups albums and concerts in recent years. Since first reaching toward a wider audience with their roles in the 1983 production of The Gospel at Colonnus, (Bob Telson and Lee Breuers Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway smash), the singers have repeatedly reinvented material associated with artists from the world beyond the church. Theyve transformed Bob Dylan (I Believe in You) and Richard Thompson (Dimming of the Day), illuminating the spiritual message inherent in these soul-searching songs. On last years Grammy Award-winning Spirit of the Century (Real World), they applied that same knack to an eclectic array of tunes drawn from the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits and Ben Harper, with a band that boasted such potent instrumentalists as blues guitarist John Hammond, string maestro David Lindley and harp virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite.
To follow up that landmark recording, the Blind Boys have taken to Higher Ground. The new album pulls together a rich assortment of classic and contemporary spiritual songs, many from the soul music tradition -- with compositions from Curtis Mayfield (People Get Ready), Prince (The Cross), Aretha Franklin (Spirit in the Dark), Jimmy Cliff (Many Rivers to Cross), Ben Harper (I Shall Not Walk Alone), Stevie Wonders title track, and, yes, even Funkadelic (Me and My Folks).
But thats not all. Higher Ground bridges generational and genre divides in other ways as well. Joining the Blind Boys as a backing outfit is Robert Randolph and his Family Band. The 24-year-old New Jersey musician has emerged in the past two years as one of the most exciting and original artists on the nouveau boogie circuit. He is a leading exponent of the sacred steel tradition, which employs pedal steel guitar in Pentecostal church services. Randolphs fiery sound is complemented by the appearance of singer and slide guitar wizard Ben Harper on several tracks. This combination of talents is explosive, as the exuberant Jubilee style gospel vocals of the Blind Boys gets walloping backup from the steely sizzle of Randolph and his crew.
Something about the music and the sound gets people moving, man, says Randolph, who began playing the pedal steel as a 16-year-old. The Blind Boys are so important to gospel. No matter what song they sing its a gospel song. Because theyve got that in them. Theyve got that sound. It was a great experience for me, to be able to record with those guys. Theyve been making music for a long time. Significantly for Randolph, the sessions reaffirmed something essential to his own style of musical praise-making. Great music can still be made today, he says. Great music can be made with live bands, and real instruments, and positive songs, and still have a wide appeal.
That appeal is sure to be enhanced by the sometimes surprising range of songs chosen for Higher Ground. But as Clarence Fountain makes clear, the distance between a funk-fortified, groove-driven R&B hit and a soul-stirring sermon on the bandstand is only a matter of interpretation. If the message is there, it will shine through. If the lyrics are right, well sing it, he says. As long as its not someone talking about my baby, or I love her, or please, do it to me!, then its alright. For example, Fountain cites Princes The Cross (from the 1987 album Sign of the Times). See, hes not singing about his baby and how he loves her. Thats why we could sing it, because he was singing about the Cross.
Likewise, tracks such as Many Rivers to Cross (from the soundtrack to the 1973 Jamaican cult flick The Harder They Come) and People Get Ready (a Curtis Mayfield classic) are inherently prayerful in their construction. This is a quality the Blind Boys are able to flesh out in a dynamic and richly textured manner.
Heres the deal, Fountain continues, if the song is the right song, we sit down and take it apart and listen to the words and see how the words correspond to how we want to sing it. Music is music, and a song is good if you can feel the emotion to really sing it. Evidence of the Blind Boys ability to put the Lord in it as Fountain phrases it abound on the new disc. (Just check out the inspired segue from Funkadelics Me and My Folks into a reading of the 23rd Psalm).
At the same time, the Blind Boys willingness to work with artists from the world of contemporary rock music marks a refreshing openness, and Ben Harpers presence on several tracks is a prime example. The performance of the song Higher Ground, is so amazing, says producer John Chelew, who returned to guide the sessions after his previous work on Spirit of the Century. There was some great guitar interaction between Ben and Robert on the tune. It sounds like something off a Cream record. Bens got a very psychedelic sound, and theres Robert, playing like hes off in the Florida Everglades, just grooving. It was a big jam.
Most gratifying for Chelew was the Blind Boys willingness to tackle material they werent necessarily familiar with. When people get on in years they get a little less elastic in their point of view, artistically, he says. But the Blind Boys are almost the opposite of that. Theyre so youthful. And they show us a version of Christianity thats so comforting and inclusive, that its hard to say where the art ends and the spirituality begins. The preconceived labels and genres just go away.
Concludes the indefatigable Fountain, I think this albums a good one. I got my fingers crossed for another Grammy!