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Spirit of the Century
Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama
Label: EMD/Real World
Length: 12 tracks
When I introduced The Blind Boys of Alabama on my radio show as my album of the week and informed my listeners that they have been playing Gospel music since 1939, many tried to get their heads around about how old that might make them, and if it was the same band. Others laughed in disbelief that these groovemeisters might be in their eighties! This reaction shows two things. First, there's a sad ignorance to a wider audience of these Gospel music legends and second, The Blind Boys of Alabama's new album has a contemporary sound. Spirit of the Century will be, without a doubt, their breakthrough album.
Of course they have been legends in that whole southern Gospel scene for sixty years--but like Rick Rubin's American Recordings, who have given a wider audience and whole new fan base to BB King--so Peter Gabriel's Real World Records is giving us The Blind Boys, and we thank them very much.
What Real World has done is to give these Boys a band. The players are stunning and, in some ways, as legendary in their field as the legends they are dressing up. David Lindley and John Hammond on electric guitar, Danny Thompson on double bass and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica bring a modern sound to dress quite spectacularly these legendary voices. This is Black Gospel with depth and power. Then there are the songs, carefully chosen. Imagine the cranky and cantankerous eccentric sounds of latter-day Tom Waits given a gospel voice. There are two chances here, on the "Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon" that could have been written for them and "Way Down In the Whole" that I'm safe in betting wasn't. If Waits-does-Gospel brings the songs into a contemporary vein, they don't end it there. Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home" and the Jagger-Richards' "Just Wanna See His Face" also get the Gospel harmonies treatment. These songs sit more than comfortably alongside the traditional classics of "Good Religion," "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "Motherless Child," and "The Last Time" because of the modern nature of the arrangements, playing and production. "Amazing Grace" is done to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun," and it shines.
It is wonderful to know that songs about Jesus have a place where an audience who prefer bed to church on Sunday mornings are able to accept them. Before and after the whole contemporary Christian music industry there was and will be music like this. This album has a high "Jesus per minute" rating and wonderfully proclaims the faith. At the same time, it is so good that no one is complaining.
Steve Stockman 5/19/2001