Album Reviews

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Spirit of the Century/Higher Ground

Artist:     The Blind Boys of Alabama

Album:     Spirit of the Century/Higher Ground

Label:     Omnivore

Release Date:     05/13/2016


Arguably these are the two Blind Boys of Alabama albums that effectively crossed them over from gospel to roots and pop airplay. Omnivore has generously reissued both with seven live performances included as bonus tracks. The Blind Boys have obviously had numerous lineups, given their origins in 1944. The vocalists on 2001’s Spirit of the Century are Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter, George Scott and Joey Williams. The same four are joined by Rickie McKinnie and Bobby Butler on 2003’s Higher Ground. The former backing band is a who’s who of roots and blues players: John Hammond, David Lindley, Charlie Musselwhite, Danny Thompson and Michael Jerome. The latter features Robert Randolph and the Family Band with Ben Harper. With these “can’t lose” musicians, and an arsenal of tunes that bridge back and forth between the sacred and the secular, the results were– and still remain—riveting, 15 years later.

Produced by John Chelew, Spirit of the Century mixed traditional gospel fare like “Amazing Grace” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” with tunes like Tom Waits’ “Down in the Hole” (The Wire soundtrack) and the Stones’ “Just Wanna See His Face.” This Grammy winning release called for an encore and Higher Ground, due to the tightness of a full band and the inclusion of more secular material, is perhaps even more engaging. You sense that immediately from the popular opening track, Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.” They also interpret Aretha’s “Spirit in the Dark,” Prince’s “The Cross,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and, of course, Wonder’s title track, which pits Randolph’s pedal steel against Harper’s wah wah guitar.

The live cuts on Spirit of the Century were recorded at The Bottom Line in NYC in 2001 and feature the same lineup of musicians. On Higher Ground, the live tracks were recorded in 2002 on KCRW’s daily show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” The tracks on both are live versions of the same studio tracks. In that sense, they don’t offer anything too new. Nonetheless, they prove that musicians and vocalists this talented need no gimmicks. They sound great in any setting.

-Jim Hynes

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