In 2001, The Blind Boys Of Alabama had been making music for almost 50 years. No one would have faulted them had they slowed down their pace or even retired. After all, not many singing groups attain that level of longevity. Instead, they continued to push the envelope in terms of what gospel music could be and released their Grammy Award-winning album Spirit Of The Century, putting them on the map for much of mainstream America. Now 15 years after the release of that landmark album, it is back in print and being rereleased with seven additional live cuts.
The album is an exciting mix of traditional gospel with soul, folk, funk and blues elements. It includes some unusual choices of artists to cover, including The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits and Ben Harper and features guest appearances from several top-notch musicians including David Lindley, John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite. The album was produced by John Chelew with Chris Goldsmith. Most importantly, the album features the incredible vocals of The Blind Boys Of Alabama who, even at this stage of their career, can deliver this type of music like few others.
Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here" leads off the album. Thompson's double bass backs a gritty Clarence Fountain Vocal before being joined by Lindley for some killer slide guitar. Think "Fever" if it was reimagined as a deep south spiritual. Jimmy Carter takes lead vocals on a bluesy "No More," once again joined by Lindley and Thompson. Fountain, George Scott and Joey Williams add soaring harmonies to this strong mid-tempo track.
Scott takes the lead on a funk-oriented "Run On For a Long Time" with the group offering strong harmonies and the band locked into a tight groove. Fountain gives a heartfelt vocal on Harper's "Give A Man A Home," an emotional ballad with Musselwhite lending some tasteful licks on harmonica.
Another Waits song "Way Down In The Hole" takes on a bossa nova feel with a potent vocal from Carter while Fountain, Carter and Williams trade vocals on a loose, bluesy cover of The Rolling Stones' "Just Wanna See His Face." An a cappella "The Last Time" showcases all four vocalists, proving they don't need musical accompaniment to deliver incredible, moving music.
Seven live songs from the album are included from a 2001 performance at The Bottom Line in New York City. The performances show that the group's amazing vocals are more than just studio wizardry as they sound just as strong in a live setting with "The Last Time" being the standout as it is on the album proper.
The Blind Boys Of Alabama continue to record and tour. Why it took this long for them to enter the mainstream is anyone's guess, but Spirit Of The Century is an exciting blend of traditional gospel with secular influences and fantastic vocals and playing. Highly recommended.