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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1512

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Blind Boys of Alabama: Down in New Orleans
by George Graham

(Time Life Records M19548 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/23/2008)

There has been quite a revival of interest in traditional songs lately, with some high-profile performers including Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp making albums focusing on the old songs. And as was the case back in the 1960s, during the previous great folk music revival, a lot of the songs people are doing are old spirituals, many from the African-American Gospel tradition. Of course, there are the legit Gospel groups who have been performing the music through the decades. One of the longest running is the Blind Boys of Alabama, who began in 1939 when they really were boys, and whose founder, singer Jimmy Carter, is remarkably, still leading the band more than 68 years later and actively touring.

When the group started, of course, segregation in the South limited their audiences to African Americans, and most Gospel groups of the day, white or black, generally stuck with purely Gospel music. But times change, and so have the Blind Boys. In recent years, they have been attracting wider, definitely secular audiences, and have won Grammy awards four years in a row. They have performed and recorded with Bonnie Raitt, Peter Gabriel, Ben Harper and Lou Reed among others.

Their new CD is aptly titled Down in New Orleans. Though the Blind Boys of Alabama have performed many times in the Crescent City, they never recorded there. Inspired by Hurricane Katrina, and an interest in trying to provide help in what manner they could, Carter and his colleagues got together with some great New Orleans players, including pianist Allen Toussaint, plus a brass band and the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band to create a great blend of the group's classic African American Gospel sound with New Orleans groove. Carter says the New Orleans syncopated rhythmic approach was not something the Blind Boys were really used to, but they soon adapted, and the result is an outstanding album that combines soul, spirit and groove in an irresistible blend.

Of course, Gospel music has always been a part of the New Orleans sound -- the second line party songs that were played on the way back from New Orleans funerals, were based on old hymns like Nearer My God to Me. So the combination of the African American Gospel group with the New Orleans sound seems like a natural, and not surprisingly, it works very well. The group does an interesting collection of music, ranging from tunes made famous by Mahalia Jackson to a song originally recorded by country artist Jim Reeves, to a Curtis Mayfield soul song. They also include two classic spirituals, Down by the Riverside, and I'll Fly Away.

In the absence of guest artists, the regular backup band is a excellent trio of New Orleans jazz players, keyboard man David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Shannon Powell. But most of the tracks have one or another of the guests.

Things get under way with a great old spiritual that became a staple of the civil rights era, Free at Last. The band does it as a kind of classic New Orleans funk groove, while the Blind Boys impart the energy of a revival meeting. <<>>

One of the secular songs included on the CD is Make a Better World, by the late Earl King, a New Orleans music fixture. The Big 8 Brass Band, a young marching group, makes an appearance and helps to keep the groove going. <<>>

How I Got Over is one of the pieces they borrowed from Mahalia Jackson, to which they give a kind of bluesy treatment. <<>>

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band makes an appearance on Across the Bridge, the song that was originally recorded by country singer Jim Reeves. The Dixieland backing really works well with the Blind Boys vocal sound. <<>>

The great Allen Toussaint joins the group for one of the most familiar of the old spirituals that was a fixture at all the hootenannies in the 1960s, Down by the Riverside. Toussaint provides the tasteful backing without hogging the spotlight. <<>>

A track that nicely illustrates the great energy that arises from the combination of the New Orleans sound with the classic African American Gospel sound is You Got to Move, which features the banjo and tuba of early jazz, with the high octane Gospel of the Blind Boys. <<>>

Despite its title, A Prayer is from the secular realm, written by Curtis Mayfield, but the Blind Boys and their backing band imbue the song with plenty of spirit. <<>>

The CD ends with another classic song, I'll Fly Away. It's a tune that has been adopted by both white and black Gospel groups, and it's also become one of those New Orleans second-line standards. So it all nicely comes together on the track, with the spirited help of the Big 8 Brass Band, who sound as if they were just back from jazzing up a New Orleans funeral. <<>>

The Blind Boys of Alabama's new CD Down in New Orleans is an infectious and wonderful blend of African American Gospel with New Orleans influence. It's a natural fit, given the role spirituals play in classic Crescent City music. What is perhaps a bit surprising is that it didn't happen a long time ago, given the musical compatibility. Perhaps it was the reluctance of Gospel performers to mix with the decidedly less-than-chaste New Orleans scene, or perhaps it was an cultural or racial factor. But in any case, two great American Southern music styles combine on this recording that can't help but move you in one way or another.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Everything is well-captured, and the energy of the music comes through well. The dynamic range -- the way the recording captures changes in volume, is fairly decent, with sounds like the bass drum and other percussion having a nice impact.

After more than 60 years together with the same leader, The Blind Boys of Alabama are in top form and making music that is both uplifting and a lot of fun.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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