Album: The Blind Boys of Alabama
Higher Ground, Realworld
Friday 30 August 2002
This follow-up to the marvellous, Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century extends further the venerable gospel combo's forays into mainstream pop and rock territory, with covers of secular songs of righteous sentiment. It's an effective formula that serves to reinvigorate classic soul material ranging from Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", to Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground", and even includes a bizarre blending of the 23rd Psalm with Funkadelic's "You And Your Folks", perhaps the world's first hymn vamp. The album also marks an innovative collaboration between the Blind Boys and the Family Band, the group led by the extraordinary young pedal-steel guitarist Robert Randolph, who began reviving the "Sacred Steel" tradition on last year's The Word. At his best – particularly when duetting with Ben Harper on "Higher Ground", the album's fiery centrepiece – he brings an extra edge of yearning to the singers' soaring delivery. Harper's own "I Shall Not Walk Alone" is another highlight, while the main fault with their striking version of Prince's "The Cross" is its brevity: just as you're getting into it, it fades away. Clarence Fountain's weatherbeaten husk of a voice is at its best on a reflective reading of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross", but it's the opening track, "People Get Ready", that lingers longest in the mind, a warm, relaxed rendition in which the lead vocals are passed along from baritone to falsetto to tenor growl, with Harper's waspish slide-guitar break providing astringent punctuation. Revelatory stuff.
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