Spirit Of The Century

The Blind Boys Of Alabama, 2012

Since 1939, The Blind Boys of Alabama have thrilled religious and secular audiences alike with irresistible, inspirational Gospel songs. Spirit of the Century - the group's aptly entitled debut on Real World - finds these venerable vocalists in undiminished peak form. Celebrating the beginnings of both the new millennium and their eighth professional decade, The Blind Boys honour their roots on Spirit of the Century by revisiting some classic, traditional gospel gems. But the adventurous, innovative approach that has always distinguished The Blind Boys of Alabama is equally evident, as witnessed by the inclusion of contemporary songs by noted writers Tom Waits and Ben Harper. In addition, producer John Chelew - whose credits include John Hiatt's brilliant album Bring The Family - showcases The Blind Boys' impassioned leads and rich harmonies with atypical yet eloquent accompaniment.

Chelew assembled a masterful studio band for Spirit of the Century with multi-instrumentalist David Lindley on various guitars and even the Middle Eastern oud; Grammy-winning blues guitarist John Hammond; blues legend Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica; British bassist Danny Thompson; and drummer Michael Jerome. The latter two comprise the rhythm section for the great guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson.

This experienced, intuitive group of players combine a reverent knowledge of traditional music idioms with diverse expertise and joyous eclecticism. Their less-is-more sensibility provides the perfect sparse, live-groove setting for The Blind Boys' deft blend of funk, fervour and finesse - while their freewheeling creativity takes Spirit of the Century far beyond the conventional confines of Gospel music. The combination of unexpected instrumentation with a universal spiritual message gives Spirit of the Century the kind of depth and critical mass that is in keeping with the philosophy of the Real World label. Still, with Zen-like logic, the project's essential core is the rural, Southern sound that first established The Blind Boys of Alabama as pre-eminent African-American Gospel singers.

We went into our old-time style on this new album, says The Blind Boys' leader and founder, Clarence Fountain. We let our minds go back to 1939, when we were students at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, in Alabama. That's when Fountain began singing, in the school's male chorus.

Recorded in March 2000, engineer John Chelew explains: We cut the Spirit of the Century at Capitol's Studio B, in Hollywood. Those are hallowed halls, with a definite vibe. Some great records have been made there. I had worked with The Blind Boys before; they sang background vocals with Bonnie Raitt on a song called When The Spell Is Broken for a Richard Thompson tribute entitled Beat The Retreat, which came out in 1994. After that experience I was really excited about producing an entire album by them.

Apart from John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite, Chelew continues, The Blind Boys had not met the other players before, but everyone clicked very quickly. At the same time, this meant that everyone had to be especially alert, and you can almost hear the sound of the musicians listening to each other. It gives the album an aura and a sense of stateliness. That essential rawness and edginess is in there, too. My preference is for feel over note-for-note perfection.

The most challenging part, Chelew explains, was getting Clarence and the other Blind Boys to truly connect with the lyrics on the contemporary songs by Tom Waits and Ben Harper. Clarence told me, We can't sing these songs until we really understand their message - we're not robots. So we discussed the lyrics and the concepts, of Jesus Gonna Be Here, Way Down In The Hole and Give A Man A Home. The superficialities of the songwriting are different from what you hear in traditional Gospel, but underneath there's the commonality of the human experience. Once Clarence identified with that, everything was fine.

Here's an historic, truly legendary group that maintains the classic Gospel quartet sound which has influenced so many other genres, especially rhythm & blues and rock 'n' roll. On Spirit of the Century they are backed by a far-flung assemblage of musicians and cut a wide musical swath. Everyone involved is excited about how well this gelled, Chelew concludes, and how well the modern and traditional material weaves together. Clarence mentioned that this album is a return to the roots of The Blind Boys' music, and that's interesting because the record is also very much a departure for them. I guess those things don't necessarily have to be contradictory. And here is proof that these contradictions can work brilliantly when in the hands of such masters.

Reviews

  • 'Six decades on, gospel group still knows how to find inspiration... At this point, some sixty years on, it would be reasonable to expect the legendary gospel singing group the Blind Boys of Alabama to simply stick to its repertoire of prayer-meeting hymns and settle into career-twilight glory. These strident voices have earned their rest. But the transfixing, beautifully recorded Spirit of the Century, which situates gospel and rock-era songs in a drawling blues atmosphere, challenges the Blind Boys to wade into less-familiar waters. Of course, they work magic: There's a neopsychedelic "Amazing Grace" set to the chord sequence of "House of the Rising Sun," a romp through Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here" invigorated by Blind Boys founder Clarence Fountain's controlled fury and a beautifully harmonized rendering of Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home." Though the themes don't all come straight from Sunday school, the Blind Boys summon the evangelical spirit of a crusade in progress, capturing the feeling not just of the revival tent but of the dark, human swampland lurking just beyond it.' Tom Moon Rolling Stone (USA)
  • 'Highly recommended, even for my fellow agnostics.' The Leo (USA)
  • 'If ever there were a record that could make a sinner dance and sing to the praises of the gospel, this is it.' Aspen Daily News (USA)
  • '...a gem of a gospel album good for Saturday nights, as well as Sunday mornings.' Dirty Linen (USA)
  • 'All Christian artists should strive for this kind of magical transcendence-of course, how many could realistically survive eight decades?' Youth Worker (USA)
  • 'Chelew's insistence on abandoning the currently popular multi-track vocal studio session in favour of a "c'mon let's gather round the mic and record this song" approach, pays off big-time, as the sonic atmosphere from start to finish is so real as to fully immerse you in it all.' Gospelflava.com (USA)
  • '...It truly is rich in terms of its range of emotional expression, the likes of which is rarely heard today... I doubt if you'll hear a more perfect record all year. Truly wonderful!' Blues & Soul (UK)
  • This truly is a joy to behold... ...and a must for music lovers everywhere. Muzik (UK)
  • 'A lifetime of experience shows!' Unity (UK)
  • 'Old folks they may be, but this blues vibed bunch of septuagenarians sure do know how to rinse a song, be it some good ole gospel, or an uplifting contemporary song by Ben Harper' Whassup (UK)
  • 'If you've ever wondered what inspired James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and other secular stars, the gospel singer Fountain will show you the source.' New Yorker (USA)
  • '...one of the most famous and celebrated gospel groups in the world.' Los Angeles Times (USA)
  • '...their talent still holds a carrot far above the heads of today's pop harmony boy bands.' Village Voice (USA)
  • 'The Blind Boys of Alabama have created an album that is indeed both deeply spiritual and musically groundbreaking...There must have been instant chemistry between this motley crew of musicians because the results are stunning.' Offbeat (USA)
  • ...these gospel elders have found the fountain of youth. Entertainment Weekly (USA)
  • '...the Boys sing with a passion and spirit that will make even nonbelievers say hallelujah.' People Weekly (USA)
  • '...their latest outing finds them breaking down the barriers of gospel, blues and soul, and delivering a world view.' Revrecord Collector
  • ...the Blind Boys are the stars of this disc, with their guests adding tasteful touches of blues and soul. CMJ (USA)
  • ...refreshingly accessible... For listeners who find the formal severity of quartet singing a little hard to take, Spirit Of The Century should be refreshingly accessible, fitted out as it is with instrumental settings...that are both piquant and ingenious. Mojo (UK)
  • 'It's rare to find music so authentic, so meaningful and so full of gusto. Long may the Blind Boys continue to enthrall.' Www.revolutionsuk.com (UK)
  • ...Clarence Fountain and the guys are living history and they sound it, better you hear them to believe how good they are. Ancient they may be but they certainly are justified. Get Rhythm (UK)
  • In what could be the "gospel/blues" recording event of the year, the Blind Boys of Alabama -- together since 1939 -- have put together a fabulous new project, stunning in scope and exhilarating in execution. Under the aegis of producer John Chelew (John Hiatt), and with the considerable musical support of aces David Lindley, John Hammond, Charlie Musselwhite, and Richard Thompson's rhythm section of Michael Jerome and Danny Thompson, the Blind Boys have created a remarkably contemporary disc pieced together from the most traditional of genres: spiritual, gospel, and blues. Spirit of the Century simultaneously honors those profound traditions while at the same time striking out on courageous new paths. With Lindley's slide ringing behind them, the Blind Boys cover songs as offbeat as Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home" and Tom Waits' "Way Down in the Hole," alongside more trad spirituals like "Motherless Child" and "No More." They even turn one of gospel's most revered songs upside down, singing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Son." Obviously, this set is designed to reach a wide, secular audience, and it succeeds hands down. It's brilliantly contemporary, with enough spiritual orientation to appeal to a traditional audience, too. In fact, it should have such broad appeal; this could be one gospel disc that'll end up on many year-end "best-of" lists. Bob Gulla CDNOW Contributing Writer Cd Now (Web Review)
  • ...the raw, impassioned vocals are light years away from the usual crossover pap. While contemporary gospel heads off for the uptown cocktail lounge, the spirit of the backwoods revival tent propels the Blind Boys of Alabama. Clarence Fountain's venerable group represents a decade-old link with the golden age of sanctified music. There is talk of this record doing for gospel what the Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuba. A shade excessive maybe, but the raw, impassioned vocals are light years away from the usual crossover pap. The R&B backing from guests including John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite plays it straight down the middle, but the brisk interplay on Run On suggests that Fountain and co could still hold their own among modern-day rappers if it ever came to a street-corner contest. The Sunday Times (UK)
  • No,not another ironic indie band, but a bunch of gospel singers who formed in 1939 while they were students at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, Alabama. Consequently, we can safely say that this will stir your soul more than the last Gomez LP did. I-d (UK)
  • Terrific gospel set that nods in the direction of both The Rolling Stones... ...(Just Wanna See His Face) and Moby (Run On). Saw them a couple of years ago, rocking WOMAD. 'Everybody stand up,' said Clarence Fountain, and some people did. 'I can't see you! Everybody stand up.' Shamefaced, suddenly everyone was up.' D'oh. Time Out (UK)
  • The playing is sympathetic and the singing... ...heavenly: huge, ageless voices, oozing warmth. The boys are reputed to have been together for 62 years, and when you hear their harmonies, you believe it. The Mail On Sunday (UK)
  • ...these American gospel blues veterans are receiving some deserved attention and this album, which includes covers of songs by Tom Waits, Ben Harper and the Stones, seems tailored to eke out some crossover appeal. The Information (UK)
  • Beautifully recorded, prepare to be dropped down in America's deep south... Tired of all this beat head bizniz? Then look no further than the Blind Boys of Alabama. Beautifully recorded, prepare to be dropped down in America's deep south, on some dusty road or in a small wooden church where you'll find yourself testifying that "you're a soldier in the army of the Lord!" Out there. Straight No Chaser (UK)
  • Three songs by Tom Waits are seamlessly woven into the bright, warm fabric of this affecting album. ...For listeners who find the formal severity of quartet singing a little hard to take, 'Spirit of the Century' should be refreshingly accessible, fitted out as it is with instrumental settings...that are both piquant and ingenious. 'Amazing Grace' is set to the tune of 'House of the Rising Sun', the slide guitar on 'Nobody's Fault But Mine' echoes Blind Willie Johnson, and guitars, string bass and oud leap like lambs in 'Soldier'. Three songs by Tom Waits are seamlessly woven into the bright, warm fabric of this affecting album. Mojo (UK)
  • An institution since their 1950s heyday... ...the Blind Boys are a living testament that the gospel tradition isn't there just to keep Moby in samples for car adverts...this is a lovely, late flower of an album. There are classy backing players...but it is the old-time vocal harmonies that raise the goose-bumps, nowhere more than when they close with the thought, 'This may be the last time we moan together'. Lord forbid. The Observer (UK)
  • ...It's a marvellous album... ...one which defies the old division between gospel and the "devil's music" by framing the group's vocals on gospel standards like 'Motherless Child' and 'Amazing Grace'...in sympathetic settings created by a house band of blues and jazz stylists...In so doing, the music is effectively re-connected with its Southern rural roots, whilst the gnarled tones of Clarence Fountain, George Scott and Jimmy Carter, in particluar, receive the sensitive treatment appropriate to their venerable status. Highly recommended. The Independent (UK)
  • Spirit of the Century utilizes an authentically rustic backdrop ...by employing bluesmen John Hammond and Charlie Musselwhite, and when Fountain's gruff lead blends with the smoother tones of Jimmy Carter and George Scott on Give A Man A Home, the result is powerful enough to give Karl Marx religion. The bizarre Amazing Grace set against what sounds like the melody of The House Of The Rising Sun is a mismatch, but an inspired version of The Rolling Stones' Just Wanna See His Face deserves a place on many year-end compilation tapes. Q Magazine (UK)
  • ...it's their own distinct sound that still has the hairs rising on the back of your neck. The music, described by the band's leader and founder, Clarence Fountain as "our old-time style," harks back to their origins, mixing gospel classics with contemporary songs. You can imagine Moby sampling the album furiously, but it's best in it's untouched, rawest state. Spread the word. Wanderlust (UK)
  • ...this is a warm and beautiful album. The Blind Boys formed in 1939 and this album features musicians such as Danny Thompson, John Hammond and the legendary Charlie Musselwhite. A mixture of traditional and contemporary, and with songwriting contributions from the likes of Tom Waits and Ben Harper, this is a warm and beautiful album. Music Week (UK)
  • Sung with an intensity that will leave an indelible mark on you, the Blind Boys bring a power borne partly of relevance...and also from a passion that others should have their good fortune. A quite wonderful album. Revolutions (UK)