Written by 5:49 am Audiophile Music

Blind Boys of Alabama Build Musical Bridges

Mark Smotroff grooves between the blurred lines…

This review is for those of you readers who — like myself —  I suspect grew up mostly listening to rock ‘n roll, jazz and perhaps some classical. 

AR-BBASpirit225.jpgAnd, if you, Dear Readers, are even a little bit like me — growing up semi-isolated from true musical diversity — chances are you haven’t considered Gospel as a form of music you’d particularly go out of your way to hear or just put on in the car while running errands…

Yet, whether we know it or not, many of us already have been listening to — and loving, I might add — what I might term “Gospel-informed” pop music. In particular, there was a lot of this happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s as post-Summer of Love survivors sought to find a higher calling that would help spread the message of peace, love and understanding amidst the darkness of Vietnam and Nixon:  George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” …  The Beatles’ “Let It Be” …  Janis Joplin’s “Work Me Lord” (written by Nick Gravenites) … The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” (written by Curtis Mayfield)… Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” … Billy Preston’s “That’s The Way God Planned It”… 

One of my favorite songs by The Who’s Pete Townshend is called “Parvardigar” from his first solo album (Who Came First) — it is based on a prayer written by his Guru, Meher Baba. 

AR-BlindBoysbackcover225.jpgWhether you realize it or not, there were many many skyward focused recordings from greats from the Soul music world such as Aretha Franklin, Bettye LaVette, The Staple Singers and Solomon Burke. Heck, progressive rock band Yes addressed spirituality on some of their records (especially on Tales From Topographic Oceans, one of my all time favorite records!).

Yet, despite all this crossing over, a curious divide remains between what I might term “everyday listening” recordings vs. recordings specifically made to be uplifting and inspirational.

I mean… when was the last time you went to a party where someone broke out The Swan Silvertones or The Dixie Hummingbirds? 

After the rock that was 1970’s ground breaking rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical Godspell (1971) was one of those albums that for some people seemed to jump the shark (if you will) into heavy-handedness and sort of establishing a break point between what the average listener could consider “cool.”   

Some heavy metal fans will cringe at the mere mention of Christian-themed band Stryper, but I know from my friend Johanne — who likes them just as much as Slayer — that those guys can shred with the best of ’em. 

AR-BlindBoysPlayingHigherGround225.jpgEric Clapton’s “Presence of the Lord” is still considered by many a cool tune (from the Blind Faith album). “Day By Day” and “Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord” from Godspell, not so much.

I loved those songs, mind you — for me, the strong melodies over-ride any cringe-inducing lyrical preachiness I might endure. 

Its hard to keep a great melody down …

Many Dylan fans got utterly bent out of shape when the legendary composer / singer seemingly went off the deep end coming out as “Born Again” in the early 1980s… So, these fans walked away from their hero despite the fact that those three albums he put out around that time contained some of the most passionate performances the man had recorded since the mid 1960s (check out “Slow Train Coming” and “In The Garden” sometime…). 

I’m guilty of this; I didn’t get Dylan’s religious period initially. Part of that was my own insecurity about wanting to appear cool in the face of friends in college.  Boy, did I ever learn how little that stuff matters in the grand scheme of things! So, yes, I more or less ignored this period of Dylan’s output until his late 80s tours with The Grateful Dead (when they performed “Slow Train Coming” together) and Tom Petty (when they did In “The Garden”); it was then I realized that regardless of the messaging, there was some amazing music to be heard… 

Fast forward, as I have gotten deeper into all things related to Soul music and Rhythm ‘n Blues, I find that more I dig, the lines between genres — Gospel, Blues, R ‘n B, Rock ‘n Roll, Jazz — blur to a point where they don’t exist.  

One of John Coltrane’s greatest works is an homage to God: A Love Supreme.  Am I going to avoid it because the music is spiritual in nature? No way! 

Music should be universal. And if you like a song, it shouldn’t matter whether the singer is basking in the glow of his or her favorite deity. As long as the music is good, enjoy it for what it is — music! 

Ok, so all this perspective has been written with a purpose in mind because there are some fine new reissues out by the legendary Gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama on Omnivore Records that you really should check out.  

These are Grammy-winning albums which came out in the early 00s and, frankly, which I missed completely! I suspect you might have missed them as well.  I’m glad we have a second chance to discover this music because there is some amazing stuff here, folks.  

First off, consider the players on Spirit of the Century: Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond, Danny Thompson and one of my all time favorites, slide guitar maestro David Lindley.  

That aforementioned crossroads was never more in your face on these recordings. Particularly, The Blind Boys of Alabama tackle some tracks that Tom Waits sort of play-acted in his now-trademark Howlin’ Wolf-after-a-carton-of-cigarettes-and-a-fifth-of-whisky voicing — quite wonderfully, mind you — and deliver the real goods (“Jesus Gonna Be Here,” “Way Down In The Hole”).  It is worth the price of admission to hear their incredible mash up of the Gospel classic “Amazing Grace” sung in a sort of minor key set to the music of “The House of the Rising Sun”  — talk about a a chance meeting at the crossroads of Heaven and Hell!  There are some tremendous live bonus recordings of this band here too! 

Robert Randolph & The Family Band back the group on another album Higher Ground including special guest Ben Harper. There they also blur the lines with covers of spiritually-driven songs by Stevie Wonder (the title track “Higher Ground”), Aretha Franklin (“Spirit in the Dark”) and Curtis Mayfield (“People Get Ready”). 

Coming full circle, the point of this review isn’t to convert anyone to any particular religion. No. My point is to let you know that there is some wonderful music tucked away in these fine sounding CDs (alas, no vinyl has been issued as of yet) which you might find in the Gospel section of your favorite music store.  For now, pick these up and regardless of your spiritual affiliation (or lack of one) — either way, I suspect you’ll groove on these great great tunes and sometimes stunning performances. 


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