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Music Review: The Blind Boys of Alabama – Duets

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Let’s be honest — “duets albums” can be dodgy propositions. Sinatra’s and Ray Charles’s duet projects were end-of-career grabs for chart success; genre artists, like the Chieftains, exploit them for crossover appeal. Piggybacking on collaborators’ names can attract new audiences, but an artist can lose his/her own identity along the way.

So I got nervous when the Blind Boys of Alabama, those multi-Grammy-winning gospel icons, released the simply titled Duets, featuring co-stars as diverse as underground rocker Lou Reed, reggae legend Toots Hibbert, and born-again country star Randy Travis. Were the Blind Boys of Alabama jumping the shark?

There’s no question the Blind Boys of Alabama are cornerstones of American gospel music – they were founded in 1939 – but only one original member remains (the semi-retired Clarence Fountain). Wasn’t it inevitable that the replacement Blind Boys might cash in on their predecessors’ reputation?

I am happy to report, however, that the Blind Boys’ Duets does no such thing. For one thing, this wasn’t a calculated, pre-conceived duets project – it compiles a dozen-plus tracks recorded over the past seven years (and one even older 1994 duet with Bonnie Raitt, “When The Spell Is Broken”). And they’re not re-recording past hits, but adding their sumptuous harmonies to new songs by an eclectic range of musical artists.

I think of this as the Brendan Fraser effect — just as actor Fraser tends to get cast by savvy directors, so do the Blind Boys benefit from the intelligence of the other artists who hire them. And after the Blind Boys’ stellar 2003 Christmas album Go Tell It On the Mountain, which featured stunning duets with everyone from Tom Waits to Chrissie Hynde, I’d bet that the Blind Boys had their pick of guest-star invitations.

On the one hand, Duets includes traditional blues artists like Charlie Musselwhite (“I Had Trouble”), John Hammond (“One Kind Favor”), and Solomon Burke (“None Of Us Are Free”), their gravelly voices highlighted against the loamy blend of the Blind Boys’ harmonies. On the other hand, country/western artists like Randy Travis (“Up Above My Head”) and the swing band Asleep At the Wheel (“The Devil Ain’t Lazy”) call on the Blind Boys’ exquisite rhythmic gifts to punctuate more jubilant songs.

While Duets features several traditional gospel numbers (like “Welcome Table,” performed with family rock star Dan Zanes), many of its songs are original compositions by their duet partners. It’s downright amazing how natural their rich gospel harmonies sound even on indie-rock songs like “Take My Hand” by frequent collaborator Ben Harper, or “Nothing But the Blood,” by the young Christian rockers Jars of Clay.

What keeps the Blind Boys honest, I imagine, is the Christian bedrock of their art; nearly all of these collaborations are songs of faith. But that doesn’t mean they can’t rock out – just listen to the exuberant “Magnificent Sanctuary Band” by Susan Tedeschi or “Secular Praise” by Timothy B. Schmidt. An even greater surprise is Lou Reed, testifying in his ragged world-weary voice on the previously unreleased track “Jesus.”

Best of all is when the Blind Boys share the vocal spotlight, doing call-and-response in a live recording with New Orleans blues queen Marva Wright (“How I Got Over”) and a simply stupendous collaboration with reggae icon Toots Hibbert (“Perfect Peace”).

Unfortunately, while it would be tempting to cherry-pick tracks according to the duet partners, both iTunes and Amazon offer only 4 tracks for individual download — the Reed, Hammond, Wright, and Hibbert tracks. Sure, those are fantastic, but every listener will have his or her own favorites, often surprising ones. (Who would have predicted I’d love the Solomon Burke and Asleep At the Wheel numbers best?) My advice: Spring for the whole album. So what if you’ve never owned a gospel record in your life? If the Blind Boys can widen their horizons after 70 years in the business, you can too.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Correction — one Blind Boys founding member, Jimmy Carter, remains active with the band full-time. My apologies!