Sounds like … traditional gospel and blues blended with classic rock and folk – this is to traditional gospel what O Brother, Where Art Thou is to folk-countryAt a Glance … the blend of old and new sounds is a fascinating listen, making this one of the year's best gospel albums.
After more than 60 years in the music business, three blind men in their early 70s release their most successful album to date, earn a Grammy award, and end up with a project sure to be a landmark in their genre for years to come. Improbable you say? Perhaps, but not impossible, as proven by The Blind Boys of Alabama and their 2001 album Spirit of the Century. The three founding members, joined by three more recent members, were lauded unanimously by critics and won "Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album" at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards. The interesting part is that Spirit of the Century isn't exactly a "traditional gospel" album. Sure, many of the songs were traditional, but the performances weren't; their rendition of "Amazing Grace" set to the tune of "The House of the Rising Sun" shouldn't be missed. I think what made it all work so well was the blending of times and genres. Mixing a bit of O Brother, Where Art Thou, some John Hiatt or Bonnie Raitt-styled folk-blues, and a lot of soulful traditional gospel, Spirit of the Century is simultaneously classic and fresh sounding.
The Blind Boys' follow-up album, Higher Ground, has the same producer, John Chelew. There's a different backing band, however; this project features "sacred steel" phenomenon Robert Randolph and his Family Band. The sacred-steel movement is one of the newest twists in gospel music today, adding pedal steel guitar to the traditional gospel sound; the result is an intriguing blend of southern folk and country with traditional gospel. Additionally, multi-talented guitarist Ben Harper returns to lend his skills to several of the tracks on Higher Ground. I found myself missing the folk-rock sound of Spirit of the Century, especially that thick double bass that was so present in the mix; the composite sound was almost "alternative traditional gospel blues." Higher Ground is much more traditional sounding, especially on the bluesy opening tracks such as Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready," Aretha Franklin's "Spirit in the Dark," and the gospel favorite "Wade in the Water."
But give Higher Ground a chance to develop, and you'll once again be treated to some unconventional gospel that blends yesterday's songs with today's sounds. Or is that today's songs with yesterday's sounds? "The Cross" originates from Prince's 1987 Sign of the Times album, and yes, it's indeed a spiritual song about Christian faith transcending the harsh times of this life. In the Blind Boys rendition of the song, the droning bass and guitars favor more of a rock sound, nearly abandoning all trace of gospel. Robert Randolph's sacred steel sound is most prevalent on tracks such as "Freedom Road" and "Many Rivers to Cross." The latter is a Jimmy Cliff song from the 1973 Jamaican cult movie The Harder They Come. Ben Harper, meanwhile, is best heard on his song, "I Shall Not Walk Alone," as well as on the old spiritual "Precious Lord," sung a cappella except for Ben's beautiful guitar licks. The disc's standout track is the title song, an old Stevie Wonder tune. The arrangement is a fabulous six-minute classic-rock jam that sounds like something Cream or The Grateful Dead would have performed back in the '60s. I love how Ben and Robert trade contrasting guitar solos throughout the song. Backed by such a talented band, the 70-year-old Blind Boys rock better than a good number of artists less than half their age!
The Blind Boys of Alabama certainly qualify as one of today's roaring lambs, making more of a splash in mainstream circles than they are in the Christian music scene. Expect mainstream music critics to talk up this album as much as they did Spirit of the Century. Be assured these guys are committed to their faith, looking for interesting songs to sing "as long as the lyrics are right" and picking apart the words to make sure they correspond to their faith. They wouldn't sing a Prince song just to be unconventional, but they do want to perform music that catches the attention of mainstream listeners as well. They even manage to "put the Lord" into Funkadelic's mostly instrumental "Me and My Folks" by reciting Psalm 23 over it. Perhaps the song most personalized to The Blind Boys is the funky gospel of "I May Not Can See." The song is a charming declaration of walking by faith and not by sight, which has extra meaning here considering the disability of the singers.
Is Higher Ground better than Spirit of the Century? It's a close call, but I'm inclined to say no. It's not that Higher Ground isn't a good album, but it just doesn't sound quite as fresh and unique as the previous album did. I would say a good third of Higher Ground contains the simple traditional gospel you'd expect from a number of other seasoned gospel artists. Make no mistake, there are some outstanding moments on Higher Ground. Ultimately, it's still one of this year's better gospel releases, demonstrating a willingness on the part of all involved to be creative and different. Is this an example of an old dog learning new tricks or new pups revitalizing the old dog? Probably a little bit of both, which is why The Blind Boys of Alabama have become such a fascinating listen.