CD Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama - Higher Ground

A reissue of the group's 2002 Grammy Award-winning classic album with bonus live cuts.
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In 2001, The Blind Boys Of Alabama released their critically acclaimed album Spirit Of The Century on Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. Despite forming in 1944, that 2001 album brought them their biggest mainstream success, winning the group a Grammy and garnering them an opening slot on Gabriel's Growing Up tour. The group suddenly needed a big follow-up album and got one in the form of 2002's Higher Ground, an album that won yet another Grammy and featured Robert Randolph and the Family Band as the backing group. Back in print once again, the album has been rereleased with seven bonus live tracks.

The album mixes traditional gospel numbers with covers of contemporary artists, blending gospel, soul and folk together. It opens with a cover of Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready." Ben Harper adds vocals and additional guitar to this track. The group trades off lead vocals here and give their trademark fantastic harmonies. Randolph offers a moving, yet restrained guitar solo on the track, allowing the vocals to shine.

Aretha Franklin's "Spirit In The Dark" is reimagined here as a heavy blues track with a gritty vocal before the band takes off into a rocking gospel rendition. One can sense the joy and feeling from all involved in this powerful track. Randolph's playing matches the intensity of the vocals on this standout number. The group gives a haunting vocal performance on the slow burn of "Wade In The Water," letting their voices drive the song.

The group's cover of the Prince track "The Cross" emphasizes the gospel overtones hinted at in its creator's version while they give a gritty, soulful reading of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," with Harper once again joining in on guitar on the latter. Harper and Randolph make a formidable guitar army and really drive the track.

Founding member Clarence Fountain gives a moving vocal on the album's closer "Precious Lord." Backed only by guitar, it is as beautiful a piece as there is on the record and a fine way to close out the original album.

A live set recorded on KCRW for the radio show Morning Becomes Eclectic is included on the reissue. Highlights include a groove-oriented "Run On For A Long Time" and a moving "Amazing Grace" that quotes "House Of The Rising Sun" musically. Both here and throughout the set the group shows its prowess as a live act.

It's amazing it took this long for the rest of the world at large to "discover" this great group, but their awards and accolades are well deserved. Higher Ground is an excellent mixture of traditional gospel, soul, funk and folk with incredible vocals and playing to match. Highly recommended.