The Blind Boys of Alabama
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Words like “veteran,” “legendary and “influential” don’t go far enough in describing the over 60-year career the Blind Boys of Alabama have fashioned. Smart marketing, beautifully produced albums and contributions of high profile artists from Peter Gabriel and Ben Harper (both of whom they toured with) to Taj Mahal, blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite and Justin Vernon a.k.a. Bon Iver (who produced the Blind Boys’ 2013 collection) have helped the long-standing vocal group appeal to a new, that is to say, younger generation like no other act of their age or genre.
Savvy song selections that had the Blind Boys tackling material from artists as diverse and unexpected as Tom Waits, the Stones, Eric Clapton and even Prince has also helped expand their audience to those who haven’t seen the inside of a church in many years, or even at all. While Robert Randolph (who assisted on the Blind Boys’ 2002 Higher Ground release) might have gotten the rockers into the gospel tent through his highly-charged jamming sacred steel, the Blind Boys have done it by staying rooted in the spiritual vocal traditions they invoked on their first recordings from the late ’40s.
That doesn’t change on these dozen songs. Four producers (John Leventhal, Vance Powell with Charles Driebe, Chris Goldsmith and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin) utilizing as many recording studios and cities, captured the Blind Boys in New York, Nashville, Seattle and, perhaps most fittingly, Muscle Shoals, Alabama, divvy up the program equally at three songs each. Despite the multi-producer/studio/city approach, the album flows remarkably well, shifting from the swampy bluesy country of Leventhal and Marc Cohen’s appropriately titled “Stay on the Gospel Side” to the Randall Bramblett co-written reflective and emotional title track and the ominous yet hopeful closing “I Was Called,” a reflection of the civil rights struggles the group has been a part of over the decades. Valerie June contributes the folksy, upbeat “Train Fare” and the North Mississippi Allstars are co-writers on the blues-rocking “Pray for Peace.”
Bob Dylan’s “I Shall be Released” is such a natural for the Blind Boys that it’s surprising this is the first they have recorded it. Here the trembling falsetto singing mirrors the Band’s classic version with Richard Manuel’s emotional voice, a highlight of their first album. And if there is any doubt about the Blind Boys’ credentials, one listen to the upbeat gospel of “I Kept Walking” with its pounding piano, multiple lead vocals and arm raising chorus will make any doubter a believer.
Ever since the Blind Boys’ crossover resurgence on 2001’s Spirit of the Century, they have continued to generate a larger audience through consistently powerful, occasionally even edgy albums and roof-raising performances that kept the gospel spirit while pushing outside some of the more limiting boundaries of their genre. Add the wonderfully energetic and uplifting Almost Home to that list and let’s hope they can keep the faith with the same vitality and dedication for the foreseeable future.