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 fascinating 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.
Things have been good for the Blind Boys of Alabama lately – it seems as if everybody wants to get in on the deal. That’s why there’s enough material out there for the label to put together this collection of collaborative recordings. There are eleven tracks from albums by other artists that enlisted the aid of the Blind Boys and three new tracks for good measure.
Joined by the likes of Ben Harper, Susan Tedeschi, Randy Travis, Charlie Musselwhite, Solomon Burke, Asleep at the Wheel, Bonnie Raitt, Jars of Clay and John Hammond – this is a partial list – The Blind Boys combine their talents with these sometimes incongruous musical partners with varying degrees of success. I, for one (and I think I’m in the minority) think that there are more misses than hits.
Like the opera star that’s called on to sing a pop ballad on a variety show, some of these tracks are the musical equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole. The Blind Boys are old-school Gospel artists and are best appreciated in that context. There are moments on this album where I get the feeling that The Boys hearts aren’t in it, even though their bodies and their voices (more or less) are. Paul Simon had the good sense, when he used the Dixie Hummingbirds in his mammoth hit single, “Loves Me Like a Rock,” to let the Hummingbirds do their thing without compromising their style. On Duets, The Blind Boys seem as if they’re being led down a musical blind alley (pun intended).
Your enjoyment of this CD will depend largely on whether you like your gospel artists in pure form or if you like to see them paired with artists, and performing in genres that you wouldn’t normally expect. I remember the disappointment of hearing Ike and Tina Turner’s appalling gospel album and The Mighty Clouds of Joy’s attempt at secular pop and R&B: sometimes you should stick to your roots.
The bottom line - for me, anyway – is that we don’t get the best of The Blind Boys of Alabama here. As individual tracks on the parent albums they came from, these songs were probably uniquely entertaining – as a Blind Boys album, though, the sum of these disparate parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole. I’ll take full-strength Blind Boys, thanks.
The quality of the tracks varies from awkward and ill-fitting to interesting, but never achieves full potential. For those unfamiliar with the strength of this group’s usual performing style, Duets will come off better than it will for the group’s long time fans who might wonder where the power went.