Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Blind Boys In New Orleans

Since 2001's "Spirit Of The Century" the Blind Boys Of Alabama have made one of the industries most unlikely comebacks. Where most Gospel groups seem to have slipped into obscurity, the Blind Boy Of Alabama have reached an increasingly broad audience and played for a diversity of crowds. Formed in the early forties The "Five" Blind Boys Of Alabama are an institution. Though it may be one of the music business longest running groups, few of the original members are still part of the current line up. In fact 79 year old Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter are the only original founding members still part of the group. But even Clarence seems to be dropping now as diabetes related health problems do not allow him to tour anymore. The current "Down In New Orleans" is the first album since the groups founding day that doesn't feature Fountain on vocals. Though the original members might be quietly slipping from the scene, as an institution the Blind Boys Of Alabama are still going strong. Traditions in Gospel music are handed down by the seniors in the group preparing the Benjamins to keep that Gospel train rolling.

Though Down In New Orleans sounds like a traditional album, it by no means is. In a sense the ancient institute that is the Blind Boys Of Alabama have been one of the most progressive Gospel acts in recent year. Traditionally the world of Gospel and R&B have strictly segregated world. There was a time when Blues was considered the Devil's music. Not for Jimmy Carter though. "No indeed! I'm a big fan of Blues music" Carter confesses in the liner notes. This has allowed the Blind Boys to seek alliances with artists who mainly work in the secular field. In 2004 that attitude resulted in a fine collaboration with Ben Harper on his "There Will Be A Light" and a subsequent as impressive tour. With Ben Harper the Blind Boys fused various strands of Blues with their brand of Gospel. A natural continuation of what they had been doing since the mentioned comeback album, on which secular songs and Gospel would compliment each other. Of course the secular material the group picks has a highly spiritual undertone. "We believe in songs with a positive message" Carter acknowledges in the notes, allowing them to branch out while not really crossing over into Pop like Sam Cooke or Bobby Womack did back in the day. But as above video testified Gospel and R&B might have had a little bit more in common anyway. The two styles have been jumping of each other since day one, with store front preacher using R&B theatrics to spice up their sermons and Gospels and Blues singers adding that Gospel fervor to fire up their tunes.

That relation between R&B and Gospel and the Blind Boys' open mindedness to it has brought them to New Orleans for a collaboration with some of the cities finest. From the greasy Funk of the opening track "Free At Last" it is clear we've got another gem at hand. The album is less traditional as it seems on first glance, this wasn't an easy ride for the Blind Boys. "New Orleans musicians use a different rhythm" Carter explains, "Push and pull". It took the Boys some getting used to he admitted. Yet with its syncopation and the use of call and response in the rhythmic foundation, New Orleans' music proves to be especially suited to bring that Gospel message home.The absolute high point of the album to me is "If I Could Help Somebody" with Allen Toussaint's lush and rollicking piano as solo companion to Carter's voice. Though shaky his voice hasn't lost any of its story telling powers through the decades. It is a voice that fill you up with hope, a voice that empowers. "Down In New Orleans" isn't just an album that brings the message of the Lord, its an album that again reaches out to the people of New Orleans and their trials and tribulations after Katrina. The marching band version of "Uncloudy Day" must have a personal resonance to many of that fine city's citizens. But maybe the song that captures the spirit of this album best is "Across The Bridge" as "Down In New Orleans" is truly an album filled with musical bridges, inviting you to cross that bridge of unity, that bridge of friendship, that bridge of freedom and that bridge of salvation.

"Across The Bridge"

No comments: