I'm not a religious person, but I've always understood how a person's faith can inspire them to produce great art. One only needs look at the religious paintings produced throughout the centuries by artists of all faiths for proof of just how many have looked to the divine as their muse. However, no matter how beautiful a painting or inspiring a sculpture might be, it never seems to be able to match the way music is able to communicate an artist's beliefs. Perhaps it's because we experience music on a much more visceral level than the visual arts, it's a living, breathing, thing after all, while the visual arts are static, it's able to elicit the greater emotional reaction. As a test, compare the way you feel while listening to Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" from his Ninth Symphony to the way you react while looking at pictures of Micelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel, there's sure to be quite a difference.
Even non-religious people like me can't be failed to move while listening to faith based music. As I have the same reaction listening to traditional Sufi poetry from the middle ages as I do listening to European classical work, Native American pow-wow singers, and Jewish cantors, in my case it has nothing to do with being moved by the power of the message that the artist is delivering, but the way in which they are making the delivery. While there are some, there aren't many contemporary musicians who are able to bring that level of passion to their music.
So when I learned that the gospel group The Blind Boys Of Alabama were releasing a collection of recordings they had made with contemporary musicians, I was intrigued. What kind of impact would playing with a gospel group, singing gospel songs, have on popular musicians? Would they be able to rise to the occasion, or would the music sound forced, or, even worse, insincere? I don't know if it's the power of the music, the passion of The Blind Boys, the talent of the performers who have joined them, or a combination of all of the above, but each of the fourteen tracks on the CD Duets, on Saguaro Road Records is not only a pleasure to listen to, but far more sincere than just about anything you're liable to hear on pop radio these days.
Now, on the whole the performers who join The Blind Boys on this disc are pretty much the type you'd expect to have the ability to make a success of playing gospel music. However there are a couple of real surprises on this disc, performers who I know I considered the least likely ever to perform a gospel tune. I mean it's no surprise to hear blues players like Charlie Musselwhite ("I Had Trouble"), Bonnie Raitt ("When The Spell Is Broken"), Susan Tedeschi ("Magnificent Sanctuary Band"), and John Hammond ("One Kind Favour") sound just as at home singing gospel tunes as they do their normal fare. Blues, especially traditional acoustic blues, is only a small step removed from the church in the first place. When performed by players as steeped in the blues and its history as those four are, who feel each and every note they play or sing as if its being wrung from their hearts, that step is almost non-existent.
Although country gospel doesn't normally move me in the same way as other forms, there's no denying the relationship between the two genres either. So folk like Randy Travis and bands like Asleep At The Wheel ("The Devil Ain't Lazy"), are just as at home playing gospel tunes as blues players. Of all the mainstream country singers that sprung up in the 1980s, Travis was one of the few whose sincerity you could never question. Maybe it was just because his voice poured out like molasses, but it always sounded like he was singing directly from his heart. So there's no real surprise that his contribution ["Up Above My Head (I Hear Music In The Air)"] is just as impressive as anyone else.
Although Ben Harper is best known for his rock playing, anybody who saw his contribution to the benefit for New Orleans, From The Big Apple To The Big Easy, a few years back won't be surprised at his soulful performance of "Take My Hand". There will be a similar lack of surprise I'm sure that both Marva Wright ("How I Got Over") and Solomon Burke ("None Of Us Are Free") do equally magnificent jobs on their contributions. However there were two names in the credits that might raise some eyebrows. Both are men whose work I admire, but who I really never would have associated with gospel music: Lou Reed and Toots Hibbert.
Toots Hibbert, lead singer of Toots And The Maytals, first came to international attention with the song "Sweet And Dandy" when it was included in the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come starring Jimmy Cliff. Hibbert's long association with reggae, his 1968 recording "Do The Reggay" is credited with being the originator of the genre's name, makes him seem an unlikely candidate for singing gospel. However listening to him singing "Perfect Peace" along with the Blind Boys, reminds you that reggae was more than just another form of pop music. It too was born out of the passion of belief, either for the Rastafarian faith or for the fight for civil rights in Jamaica. His voice cracks with soulful energy and you can't help but feel his passion for the material.
However hard it might be to picture the man who gave the world "Walk On The Wild Side", "Heroin", "Sweet Jane", and other classics of the seamier side of life in New York City, signing a tune called "Jesus", it's a far better fit than you'd expect. His almost matter of fact delivery when he sings has always belied the passion in his music and that swirls beneath the cool exterior of his stage persona. You can't sing about AIDS ("Halloween Parade") or any of the other social and political issues Reed has tackled in recent years with the amount of intensity he's shown without there being a well of passion to draw upon. Don't look for any histrionics, or anything else out of character for him in his performance of "Jesus", but listen to the subtle changes in his voice and you'll hear the depths beneath that still exterior.
While the performances on Duets are uniformly excellent, even better is the fact that the songs included in the collection aren't the typical ones you'd expect to hear under the circumstances. To be honest I don't remember hearing any of them before. Perhaps to people more familiar with gospel music than me these titles are well known, but I was pleased to be hearing material that was new to me. While the majority of the performances on this disc are much like you'd expect, there are also a couple of excellent surprises as well. It just goes to prove that passion comes in all shapes and forms, but it ends up sounding just about the same no matter what fuels it. This is great music sung by great performers, what more could you want.