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by George Graham
(Independent Release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/9/2019)
As Baby Boomers age, the some of the bands that arose in the Woodstock era 50 years ago are still around in one form or another, and some of them still doing worthwhile music. But surely one of the longest running groups on the scene this year marks 80 years as a band, the Blind Boys of Alabama. They remain active, with albums every couple of years, and a willingness to do interesting collaborations with other artists. This time, for our weekly album review Number 2000, over 46 years, we consider the Blind Boys’ latest joint project, one with singer-songwriter Marc Cohn. It’s called Work to Do.
The Blind Boys of Alabama were literally that when they formed in 1939, with most of them about 9 or 10 years old. In fact it was only last year that the one of the founding members, Clarence Fountain passed away. He occasionally worked with the group until recently, and appeared on their last album two years ago.
Marc Cohn is best known for his 1991 hit song Walking in Memphis. Marked by his soulful style but with strong ties to the folk-influenced singer-songwriter genre, Cohn is not very prolific in his recorded output. He was out of commission for an extended period with post-traumatic stress after being shot in the head in an attempted carjacking in 2005. He did an album of cover songs in 2010, and then returned with new original material in 2014. He has been working more as a songwriter lately, collaborating with others, including veteran soul artist William Bell, who wrote the classic Born Under a Bad Sign. Two years ago, Cohn was one of the songwriters tapped by the producers of the Blind Boys of Alabama’s Almost Home, which we featured in this review series. Cohn and the Blind Boys continued their collaboration on this new album which is combination of three studio tracks and seven taken from a live performance recorded by Connecticut Public Television. It turns out to be an excellent collaboration. Cohn’s soulful original songs, most of which are remakes of his earlier material, are fine match for the Blind Boys’ enthusiastic Gospel-style singing. They also include some traditional material, to which interesting arrangements are given. Sometimes the Blind Boys are up front, and sometimes they serve as righteous backing vocalists.
The instrumental personnel varies but the live band includes some notable studio musicians, including bassist Tony Garnier, drummer Joe Bonadio, and Randall Bramblett on keyboards.
The opening track, however has no band accompaniment. It’s a stirring a cappella version the traditional spiritual Walk in Jerusalem. It’s mostly the Blind Boys, but Cohn takes a verse or two. <<>>
That is followed by another of the studio tracks, a new original by Cohn called Talk Back Mic, a Gospel song looking at life as a recording session, with God on the talk back mic from the control room. <<>>
The other of the studio recordings is the title song, Work to Do, with a nice Memphis-soul style arrangement. It’s basically a love song, but the Blind Boys give it a sound that would not be out of place in church. <<>>
The live set opens with Ghost Train one of Cohn’s earlier songs. The focus is more on Cohn on this track, except for the backing vocals. But it’s eminently tasteful and soulful. <<>>
An original by Cohn that is in the Gospel mold is Baby King which would be appropriate around Christmas time. The Blind Boys are front and center on this one. <<>>
One of Cohn’s better known songs is given an extended treatment on the album, Silver Thunderbird, with another nice arrangement. <<>> Cohn provides the individual members of the Blind Boys a chance for a vocal spotlight. <<>
One of the most interesting tracks on the album is a feature for the Blind Boys of Alabama. They perform Amazing Grace but do it to the tune of House the Rising Sun, with intriguing results, especially when you consider the lyrics to House of the Rising Son being about a house of ill repute and the words to Amazing Grace being the classic Gospel song. <<>>
The album includes Cohn’s signature song Walking in Memphis with the Blind Boys, who add a very soulful touch underscoring the lyrics. <<>>
Work to Do the new album by Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama is an enjoyable recording by a musical collaboration that works especially well. Cohn’s songs over the years have had a good helping of soul influence. Getting together with the Blind Boys takes it to its logical extension, with the venerable Gospel group working their magic, and definitely inspiring Cohn in his performance. It’s a nice set with the three studio tracks including a couple of new songs, and a very pleasing, warm live performance with some of Cohn’s earlier material. Everyone is in top form, the musical atmosphere is really outstanding, with their great mutual interaction
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. The mix is commendable and there is good clarity, but I have my usual complaint about volume compression squashing out the dynamic range for the sake of making things loud all the time.
Over the years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have done many collaborations, with for example their Duets album in 2009, and a Christmas recording with Taj Mahal among others. This new joint project with Marc Cohn is one of the best by either.
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