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The Blind Boys of Alabama
(Real World)

After three Grammy-winning albums that have found this six-decade gospel institution covering Tom Waits, turning classic blues numbers into church songs, and collaborating with jam-world star Ben Harper, the Blind Boys return to their roots with a traditional-sounding set that relies on the testifying power of their old-time jubilee singing. Of course, by now their roots are pretty twisted. Which accounts for a version of the ’70s Norman Greenbaum hit "Spirit in the Sky" that pairs their five-part harmonies with a grizzly Detroit boogie charge led by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on guitar and harmonica giant Charlie Musselwhite. There’s also a deeply soulful version of Blind Faith’s "In the Presence of the Lord," with Billy Preston on organ, that swaps Eric Clapton’s guitar solo on the original for tenor singer Jimmy Carter’s pyrotechnics. And since a strategy of departures from the strictly spiritual repertoire and guest turns have taken the group to a new, younger audience, a collaboration with Gift of Gab from Blackalicious on a wailing version of the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune "Demons" isn’t much of a surprise. Especially since they have no trouble taking it to the tabernacle, thanks to Gift’s preaching rap.

But what’s best is a pair of classics, "Old Blind Barnabas" and the Soul Stirrers’ "Atom Bomb," that let founding Blind Boys Carter, George Scott, and leader Clarence Fountain turn back the clock more than a half-century, their call-and-response singing laid bare thanks to spare instrumental support. The trio’s long history together, dating back to their meeting at a school for the blind in 1936, ends with this album. Scott, who’d retired from touring last year and returned to his home in Durham, North Carolina, died of heart failure on March 9, age 75.

(Blind Boys of Alabama perform this Saturday, March 26, at the Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston; call 617-747-2261.)


Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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