I bought the Blind Boys of Alabama’s 2002 disk Higher Ground on one of those whimsical, spur of the moment kind of deals. You know the type; you go into Borders, or Barnes and Nobles, or whatever big chain you prefer to whittle away your troublesome hours amongst the pop culture references. They’ve got various albums on the compact disk sitting in stands around the shop, already cued up in a CD player, waiting for you to press play and then purchase.
This particular album was just sitting there, waiting for me to gather a listen. I had heard good things about the Blind Boys before, and even though I had previously not had any luck enjoying one of their straight gospel affairs, this new disk looked most promising.
Look there, its got Robert Randolph on pedal steel throughout, and Ben Harper guesting on a couple of tracks. They cover Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”, Jimmy Cliff and even a Prince tune. You can’t go wrong with that.
I was mostly right.
The thing is, and this has happened to me several times before, Higher Ground sounded fantastic while I was listening to it in Borders. It’s like how jeans seem to look better while you are looking at yourself in the store mirror, albums sound better while using store headphones. Yet when you take them home, your butt looks to big, the zipper doesn’t go all the way up, and the music sounds like crap.
Truth be told, the album opener, a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” is pretty stinkin’ spectacular. If I must be honest with you, dear reader, I might have to admit that they beat the pants off of the original. It’s the kind of performance that makes me want to raise my hands and shout to the lord of the blind boys,
There is some nice vocal harmony, with a sweet high part sung by Ben Harper. Robert Randolph and the Family Band add some nice licks, but play for the song and not to show off their musicality.
While certainly Mayfield’s song is a spiritual one, it is also a political one. Inspired by the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington Mayfield’s lyrics speak out to a generation tired of war, to a race tired of being downtrodden, to a people ready for something to happen.
The Blind Boys cut out the politics and sing it straight as a spiritual. They make it sing. In the final chorus they nail a raved up harmony singing,
And you can hear 60 years of faith coming out in their voices. And in that moment, if only for that moment, we all believe, too.
There are other tracks that tread on similar, higher ground. This rendition of “Wade in the Water” stirs me to my very pancreas. The bass vocals are as about as perfect as one could hope to find from a blind, black man from Alabama. While “Many Rivers to Cross” doesn’t quite reach the power, and humility of the Jimmy Cliff version, there is a weary wisdom in the gravely voices that come out of the Blind Boys that make it a classic in their own right.
The album is at its best when the instruments accentuate the strength of the Boys singing. An a cappella band for many years, the Blind Boys have an enormous presence, vocally. When Robert Randolph et al, ramp it up as a blues band, the album suffers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Stevie Wonder classic “Higher Ground.” While Randolph is a fine guitarist, and he shows off more than a fine pair of chops during this number, the Blind Boys seem out of place. The lyrics have spiritual significance, but the song is more of a rock/funk number than down home southern gospel. The vocals can’t latch onto any significant meaning because the guitar drowns them out.
Yet at the same time, numbers like “Precious Lord”, and “Spirit in the Dark” suffer from a lack of musical interest. The Blind Boys sing it like they’re in the choir, but there is no interest in the music, there is no soul in the soul.
When they are able to find a balance in both the vocals and the music, the results, are…well…heavenly.