Sunday, January 17, 2010

Duets - The Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys’ commendation

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama
Label: Saguaro Road Records
Length: 14 tracks/56:35 minutes

If The Blind Boys of Alabama ever needed commendation, which they don’t, Duets provides it by being a showcase for the wide variety of artists with whom they have collaborated. Also telling are the many songs on this release that come from Grammy-nominated or Grammy-winning albums.

Appropriately, the CD opens with “Take My Hand” by Ben Harper from the Grammy-winning There Will Be a Light (2004). It was through that award that The Blind Boys came to my attention and perhaps the attention of many others.

What is it about The Blind Boys that causes so many artists to want them on their albums? Being in the music business, it must have something to do with their sound, which for me hearkens to the Negro spirituals sung by world-weary voices that knew hardship. It’s an authentic gospel sound that enhances songs that resonate with The Blind Boys.

Two of the most powerful tracks are back to back blues excursions: “I Had Trouble,” by Charlie Musselwhite and “When the Spell is Broken,” by Bonnie Raitt. The latter song features The Blind Boys on a great-sounding refrain toward the end: “Can’t cry if you don’t know how.” Their voices fit well with the blues, but among the wide range of styles that you find are country, black gospel, Americana, reggae and something that sounds a little alternative.

In regards to the latter, I’m thinking of “Jesus” by Lou Reed, one of three previously unreleased recordings. I found this track mesmerizing from the first time that I heard it. Sparse instrumentation and short, simple lyrics given with a vulnerable delivery perfectly complement this song of brokenness. It’s a plea from one who has fallen from grace and now seeks to find their place. This song also caught the attention of the legendary Glen Campbell, who recorded it on Meet Glen Campbell.

On the contemplative and intriguing side is “Secular Praise,” by Timothy B. Schmidt, a member of the Eagles. As he reminisces about his life he adds, “Don’t go to church but I feel the weight.” Could this be the weight of glory that people feel when the catch sight of an Almighty God? It’s not clear who he is referring to when he sings, “Still I hope to shake the hand of fate before I die.”

Another interesting collaboration with someone not as well known is Susan Tedeschi on “Magnificent Sanctuary Band,” a gospel song produced by the well-respected Joe Henry, who produces another song on this recording, “None of Us Are Free,” by Solomon Burke. Tedeschi is known as a blues guitarist and the wife of Derek Trucks, one of two guitarists for The Allman Brothers Band.

I can’t help thinking that The Blind Boys are an obvious bridge between the gospel and the world of music. Their lives and voices are an influence for good. This CD serves as a fascinating introduction to their music, which thankfully has intersected mainstream music in such a rewarding way.
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