Despite having been around for over 50 years at that point, The Blind Boys Of Alabama never recorded a Christmas album until 2003's Go Tell It On The Mountain. The album came during a period of renewed interest for the group that saw them reaching wider audiences, opening for (and performing on the albums of) the likes of Peter Gabriel and winning multiple Grammy Awards. The album featured the groups trademark harmonies, matched by an eclectic list of guest stars such as Tom Waits and Aaron Neville, and has been rereleased with bonus tracks.
The album opens with "Last Month Of The Year," a track that finds the group harmonizing a cappella before the band kicks in. It is an up-tempo, gospel number that cooks. This is the sort of track Elvis Presley shined on with his gospel releases and for The Blind Boys, it is no different. One can sense the joy in their harmonies here and throughout. Solomon Burke joins the band on guest vocals on the Harry Connick-penned "I Pray On Christmas," sharing vocals with Jimmy Carter on this joyous track. The song has a bouncy feel and showcases the group's excellent harmonies, plus some strong Hammond B3 organ courtesy of John Medeski. The late Burke fits right in on this track.
Tom Waits joins the group on the title track. While Wait's raspy vocals may seem an odd choice to blend with the Blind Boys' harmonies, it absolutely works here. Waits gives a gritty, soulful vocal that contrasts the group's harmonies. Less successful is Chrissie Hynde's guest vocal on "In The Bleak Midwinter." Not so much because her performance is bad (it isn't), but because it seems to minimize The Blind Boys on their own album.
Clarence Fountain and Shelby Lynne trade vocals on "The Christmas Song." Lynne's breathy performance compliments Fountain's nicely in this jazzy rendition of this classic tune. "Away In A Manger" finds George Clinton and guitarist Robert Randolph guesting. While Clinton's added vocals don't do much for the song, Randolph's guitar elevates the track with Jimi Hendrix-like flourishes.
The original album closes with a version of "Silent Night" with no guest stars, only the spectacular vocals of The Blind Boys. Backed only by double bass and drums, Fountain gives a moving lead vocal on this Christmas staple and ends the album on a high note.
The album features three bonus tracks. The first is an absolutely stunning a cappella version of "My Lord What A Morning" that shows the group doesn't need any instrumentation whatsoever. The other two are live versions of "Go Tell It On The Mountain" without Waits, but no less potent, and a strong version of "Amazing Grace."
It's hard to believe it took as long as it did for The Blind Boys Of Alabama to release a Christmas album, but when they did, it was a good one. Many fans may prefer there to be no guest stars as in some cases, they do distract from the true stars of the album, but The Blind Boys Of Alabama singing with guest stars is still better than most groups. Go Tell It On The Mountain is definitely worth a listen for fans of the group, of gospel and soul music and of Christmas music.