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.