The blues and gospel fields have usually been separated, literally kept as far apart as Saturday night and Sunday morning. The church has always preached against the sinful life that blues music sprang from, and when Big Bill Broonzy first heard Ray Charles he disapproved of the way he mixed gospel music styles with secular lyrics. Which makes the new Blind Boys album a bit of an anomaly. Not only are tunes by Tom Waits, Ben Harper and Jagger-Richards covered, the backup band is strongly rooted in blues, with
players like John Hammond and Charlie Musslewhite on board.
Producer John Chelew wanted to bring a fresh approach to the Blind Boys efforts, using contemporary material and a sympathetic musical ensemble to produce a unique blend with their traditional gospel group sound. The Blind Boys have been stalwarts on the gospel scene since 1939, (for a good background article see NO DEPRESSION May 2001) and of late have been working on the concert/club circuit where their high energy shows appeal even to agnostics, who substitute "Oh baby" for "Oh Lord", when the lyrics bother them.
Right from the jump you know this is gonna be a different set; the opening number "Jesus Gonna Be Here" (Tom Waits) starts with solo acoustic bass, gradually joined by dobro (Hammond), harp (Musselwhite) and electric slide guitar (world music whiz David Lindley)--and rather than the usual shouting group vocals its a rather reserved solo for featured vocalist Clarence Fountain. An atmospheric harp solo has tinges of Musselwhite's early classic "Christo Redemptor". The full group shows up on the next number, but it isn't till the third tune, "Run On For A Long Time" that you get the Blind
Boys sound you're probably expecting. "Good Religion" features the group backed only by Hammonds dobro--the piece has a sweet country church feel to it.
The real unique touch comes on the standard, "Amazing Grace". Producer Chelew came up with the idea of confronting the sacred/profane chasm head-on. The tune starts with an instrumental chorus--the intro chords to "House Of The Rising Sun", the New Orleans whore-house narrative-the changes play throughout behind the original traditional melody and it works just fine, the incongruity making for some interesting dynamic tensions. It 's audacious but it makes a point--and it got the group on Letterman a few
months ago. "Soldier", another traditional number, gets a infectious, driving arrangement featuring Lindley on the Arabic oud--the beat wont quit--in fact the riff continues for a chorus or two after the vocal ends. Other traditional numbers include Blind Willie Johnsons "Nobodys Fault But Mine" and "Motherless Child". The album closes with a remake of an 50's recording of theirs "The Last Time"--which the Stones adapted for their own hit in the 60's. What goes around comes around indeed.
This is a concept album that actually does what it intended to do-showcase some great traditional music in a different setting which reveals even more of the depth and width available there. Every now and then a cross-over scheme is actually a good idea.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Gordon Baxter, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.