Since 1939, The Blind Boys of Alabama have thrilled religious and secular audiences alike with irresistible, inspirational Gospel songs. Spirit of the Century - the group's aptly entitled debut on Real World - finds these venerable vocalists in undiminished peak form. Celebrating the beginnings of both the new millennium and their eighth professional decade, The Blind Boys honour their roots on Spirit of the Century by revisiting some classic, traditional gospel gems. But the adventurous, innovative approach that has always distinguished The Blind Boys of Alabama is equally evident, as witnessed by the inclusion of contemporary songs by noted writers Tom Waits and Ben Harper. In addition, producer John Chelew - whose credits include John Hiatt's brilliant album, Bring The Family - showcases The Blind Boys' impassioned leads and rich harmonies with atypical yet eloquent accompaniment.
Chelew assembled a masterful studio band for Spirit of the Century with multi-instrumentalist David Lindleyon various guitars and even the Middle Eastern oud; Grammy-winning blues guitarist John Hammond; blues legend Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica; British bassist Danny Thompson; and drummer Michael Jerome. The latter two comprise the rhythm section for the great guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.
SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY BAND
This experienced, intuitive group of players combine a reverent knowledge of traditional music idioms with diverse expertise and joyous eclecticism. Their less-is-more sensibility provides the perfect sparse, live-groove setting for The Blind Boys' deft blend of funk, fervour and finesse - while their freewheeling creativity takes Spirit of the Century far beyond the conventional confines of Gospel music. The combination of unexpected instrumentation with a universal spiritual message gives Spirit of the Century the kind of depth and critical mass that is in keeping with the philosophy of the Real World label. Still, with Zen-like logic, the project's essential core is the rural, Southern sound that first established The Blind Boys of Alabama as pre-eminent African-American Gospel singers.
"We went into our old-time style on this new album," says The Blind Boys' leader and founder, Clarence Fountain. "We let our minds go back to 1939, when we were students at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, in Alabama." That's when Fountain began singing, in the school's male chorus.
"The chorus was like a glee club," Fountain recalls. "Most of our teachers were white, and we were taught a lot of material by white songwriters, like Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground. But we used to listen to black gospel music on the radio, on WSGN in Birmingham. That station played records by groups like the Golden Gate Quartet and the Soul Stirrers, and we loved it. My buddies and I decided to form our own group and sing like they did, with four-part harmony. For a while we called ourselves the Happy Land Singers and we toured all around the country. Then a promoter put us on a show with another blind group, the Jackson Harmonies from Mississippi. He billed it as a contest between the blind boys of Alabama and the blind boys of Mississippi. The name worked good so we stuck with it." For years, Fountain's group was known as The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, although the actual number of members often fluctuated; two long-time members, Jimmy Carter and George Scott, appear with him on Spirit of the Century.
"We've recorded for a lot of companies since the 1940s," Fountain continues, "Specialty, Savoy, VeeJay, Nonesuch, House of Blues, and lots of little ones." In the late 1980s, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama embarked on a long-term engagement in the Obie award-winning musical The Gospel at Colonus, in which classic Greek tragedy was presented with a contemporary Pentecostal motif. "That play was a hit from jump street," Fountain says, "and it did a lot for us. We ventured into playing for white audiences, besides the black audience that we already knew. We were trying to reach as many people as we could and make them understand The Gospel." Today, Clarence Fountain and his compatriots perform on a truly varied circuit that encompasses festivals, arts centres, churches and even nightclubs, around the world.
It was just such a live performance that planted the seed for Spirit of the Century. Throughout a 1998 roots music touring package called Highway 61, The Blind Boys and John Hammond joined forces nightly for a haunting rendition of the poignant Gospel standard Motherless Child. Night after night, the song was an exceptionally moving highlight for both the audience and the musicians, and it generated the idea of uniting these two great talents in the studio as well. John Chelew and the hand-picked crew of sympatico musicians signed on for the project, and the album was recorded in March 2000.
"We cut the Spirit of the Century at Capitol's Studio B, in Hollywood," Chelew explains. "Those are hallowed halls, with a definite vibe. Some great records have been made there. I had worked with The Blind Boys before; they sang background vocals with Bonnie Raitt on a song called "When The Spell Is Broken" for a Richard Thompson tribute entitled Beat The Retreat, which came out in 1994. After that experience I was really excited about producing an entire album by them."
"Apart from John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite," Chelew continues, "The Blind Boys had not met the other players before, but everyone clicked very quickly. At the same time, this meant that everyone had to be especially alert, and you can almost hear the sound of the musicians listening to each other. It gives the album an aura and a sense of stateliness. That essential rawness and edginess is in there, too. My preference is for feel over note-for-note perfection."
"The most challenging part," Chelew explains, "was getting Clarence and the other Blind Boys to truly connect with the lyrics on the contemporary songs by Tom Waits and Ben Harper. Clarence told me, 'We can't sing these songs until we really understand their message - we're not robots.' So we discussed the lyrics and the concepts, of 'Jesus Gonna Be Here,' 'Way Down In The Hole' and 'Give A Man A Home.' The superficialities of the songwriting are different from what you hear in traditional Gospel, but underneath there's the commonality of the human experience. Once Clarence identified with that, everything was fine.
"After the recording was finished," Chelew explains, "we needed to find the right company to release it. Real World, the British label run by Peter Gabriel, was extremely enthusiastic from the minute they received the tape; they'd already been knocked out by The Blind Boys' performance at the WOMAD Festival. I'm thrilled that they decided to go with it. Real World is constantly releasing music from around the globe that is strange, beautiful and cross-cultural, so The Blind Boys fit right in.
Here's an historic, truly legendary group that maintains the classic Gospel quartet sound which has influenced so many other genres, especially rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll. On Spirit of the Century they are backed by a far-flung assemblage of musicians and cut a wide musical swath. "Everyone involved is excited about how well this gelled," Chelew concludes, "and how well the modern and traditional material weaves together. Clarence mentioned that this album is a return to the roots of The Blind Boys' music, and that's interesting because the record is also very much a departure for them. I guess those things don't necessarily have to be contradictory." And here is proof that these contradictions can work brilliantly when in the hands of such masters.
"I'll tell you what," says David Lindley, a deeply talented man who is deluged with requests for studio work. "When I was asked how much I'd charge to play on this album, with The Blind Boys of Alabama and these other great musicians, my response was: 'I should be paying you guys to do this project!'"