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(Sony Masterworks 88883 74058 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/2/2013)
One of the ingredients that went into the formation of rock and roll, in addition to the uniquely American sounds of blues, jazz and country music, was another truly American development: Gospel music. Not European church music, but a full-throated, energetic sound that mainly arose in the South. With the segregation during that period, separate strains of white and African American Gospel arose, which nevertheless had a surprising amount in common.
Over the decades in the 20th Century, African American Gospel, or spirituals have had an appeal to wider audiences outside the church, though usually for the more musically restrained varieties. It tends to go in and out of fashion. But in recent years, African American Gospel has been making something of a comeback in the form of inspiration for younger bands and performers. And earlier this year, we reviewed a new release by Bobby McFerrin, paying tribute to his father, a great singer of spirituals, with the younger McFerrin's own unique take on the old songs. Also, a distinctive breed called "sacred steel" based on a the steel guitar normally used by country musicians, has gained a foothold, thanks to the Robert Randolph Band.
While the music has seen younger performers draw on it for inspiration, there are still some groups doing the original article. And one of the longest-running groups, indeed in almost all of music, is the Blind Boys of Alabama, formed in 1939 and still featuring two of the original members. The group has recorded extensively and in the last decade has really seen their profile rise, with a bunch of interesting projects that put them in the musical company of performers from the rock and pop world. And in recent years they won some Grammy awards.
The latest project from the Blind Boys of Alabama is another collaboration with artists from the contemporary pop world. The new CD is called I'll Find a Way, and it was produced by Justin Vernon of the Grammy-winning alternative pop band Bon Iver.
Perhaps more than any other such traditional Gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been doing a series of often-surprising collaborations during the 2000s. Sometimes it's the Blind Boys appearing as guests on other people's records, and sometimes it's the group themselves inviting guests. Their eclectic journey in recent years began when they were signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. There followed an fascinating Christmas album with guests including Tom Waits, a couple of albums with Ben Harper, and a Grammy winning collaboration with New Orleans performers called Down in New Orleans in 2008.
According to the group's website, the Blind Boys intended to work with Justin Vernon as one of several outside contributors, but once the group got going, it turned out to be a full-album partnership. The group journeyed to Vernon's studio in Wisconsin, apparently in the dead of winter, minus one of the group's founders Clarence Fountain, who was having health problems. However, Fountain does appear on the CD through overdubbing his parts closer to home.
In addition to Justin Vernon, there are guest appearances by mostly younger performers such as Shara Warden of My Brightest Diamond, Casey Dienel of White Hinterland, singer-songwriter Sam Amidon and Merrill Garbus of the Tuneyards. Phil Cook, Vernon's bandmate in Bon Iver also appears as a multi-instrumentalist.
The material includes some classic Gospel standards, such as I Shall Not Be Moved, as well as an original track by a member of the band Field Report. The accompaniment includes members of the regular Blind Boys of Alabama band as well as some outside people, and it's an interesting stylistic blend, running from an almost New Orleans brass band sound to something conjuring a 1960s soul arrangement.
The CD opens with God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud, which interestingly comes from a classic white Appalachian Gospel and bluegrass group, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Producer Justin Vernon does the bluesy slide guitar leads. The group serves it up with lots of energy. <<>>
An interesting choice for a collaborator on an album like this is Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, known for her quirky folk-influenced music with string arrangements. The track they do is I'll Find a Way (To Carry It All), and they deliver it as a kind of a slow Motown soul arrangement. <<>>
New England-based alternative folk artist Sam Amidon is the guest on I Am Not Waiting Anymore. The added brass instruments, all played by Reggie Pace, and the spacy guitars makes this one of the more unlikely combinations on this rather eclectic record. But it generally works well. <<>>
In a more traditional energetic African American Gospel context is the classic I Shall Not Be Moved. The Blind Boys will no doubt have the congregation on their feet with this one. <<>>
An interesting choice of tunes that was made by producer Vernon was I've Been Searching, which was a reggae song by Derrick Morgan. Vernon said that he could easily imagine this as a Gospel song, and so it became one on this CD. The guest lead vocalist is Merrill Garbus of Tuneyards. <<>>
Another of the more traditional-sounding tracks is Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There, endowed with the added horns which give it an old-time element. The result is a classic. <<>>
Justin Vernon makes his own vocal appearance on a Bob Dylan composition Every Grain of Sand which takes a left turn toward a kind of spacey instrumental sound. It's another of the surprising combinations on the album, though perhaps not the most successful. <<>>
The CD ends with its most joyful and energetic track Jubilee which features a guest appearance by Patty Griffin. It's an all-out hand-clapping foot-stomping church roof-raiser. <<>> Founding Blind Boy Jimmy Carter does the exhortation at the end with lots of fire. <<>>
The Blind Boys of Alabama's latest CD I'll Find a Way is another enjoyable project from this acclaimed band, which has been together for 74 years and still has two original members. They again collaborate with musicians outside their tradition, in this case with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who brought in the various mostly 20-something guests, for an eclectic and artistically successful cross-cultural blend. It's notable that Vernon let the Blind Boys be largely by themselves for several tracks. While it may not be the Blind Boys best set of collaborations, this CD has a lot going for it, and the Blind Boys' joy in the music is palpable.
In terms of sound quality, I'll give the CD an A-minus. Kudos for not trying to imitate old-time recordings, or trying to be cutesy with studio effects. But we again deduct points for the volume compression used to artificially crank up the loudness of the recording.
With a lot of younger bands turning to traditional Gospel for their influence, it's likely that this very-long-running group will find new audiences, especially given the generation of the performers who are guests on the record. And whatever your view toward religion, the music is hard to resist.
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