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Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration
Artist: Various
Label: EMI CMG
Time: 11 Tracks / 44 mins

A lot of the time, ‘various artists’ releases are more for industry convenience and promotion than for the benefit of music lovers; but when they are a unique project, rather than a way of re-using material on the cheap, they can be something quite special. This one is.

The concept is to put together mainstream artists and gospel artists on recognized songs like “Redemption Song” and “People Get Ready.”

I came across it when looking at Angelique Kidjo’s web site and got very excited by the blend of artists and songs. How can any music fan not get a shiver at the thought of Robert Randolph playing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” or get curious about Jon Bon Jovi doing “Keep the Faith” with the Washington DC Youth Choir? The latter is the biggest re-modelling here. Whether and how it works could keep fans arguing for some time.

As it turns out, you can’t guess how the project turns out. Kidjo’s account of “Redemption Song,” although refreshingly African in sound, is surprisingly underpowered, and 3 Doors Down have put out a version of “In the Presence of the Lord” that stays remarkably close to the original (but it is probably time to give this track an airing for a new audience with today’s technology). This is one of several cases of a choir adding to the song without overpowering it.

Along with Randolph’s piece, Jonny Lang with the Fisk Jubilee Singers were Grammy-nominated for best Gospel performance. “I Believe” is a gutsy, play-loud, bluesy job with some dirty, buzzy guitar work. But my spine was tingled even more by Aaron Neville’s perfectly pitched “Change is Gonna Come.” Sometimes his idiosyncratic style makes me smirk, but here he keeps it under control and delivers a gorgeously smooth vocal that can make you want to close your eyes to take in all the nuances.

Oh Happy Day is an excellent example of what crossover should be about. There is an undeniable gospel feel about the project, but i-Tunes labels it as rock. Robert Randolph sums up the mix on his own, his black church influences making him in-demand for work with Eric Clapton et al, and here he takes one of Wonder’s grittiest, funkiest pieces and re-adjusts the levels of funk, gospel and rock. In a fine piece of arranging, after four of the rockiest pieces, Al Green and Heather Headley’s account of “People Get Ready” veers the sound towards soul and Michael MacDonald picks up the baton. As the tone shifts blackwards, the disc exudes a polish that particularly shines on pieces like the smooth title track.

The collection doesn’t always impress strongly. Mavis Staples has such a rich vocal that duettist Patty Griffin comes across as a lightweight bolt-on; and Buick Audra’s collaboration with Joss stone on “This Little Light” is a slender, rootsy piece of acoustic fun, but it doesn’t fit that well with the rest of the disc. At least it has been tacked on to the end...

The gospel sounds across the release work naturally, rather than being shoehorned in. The disc has been nominated as the best traditional Gospel album of 2009, and I wouldn’t vote against it.

Derek Walker


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