Higher Ground

The Blind Boys Of Alabama, 2012

The Blind Boys of Alabama started singing together way, way back in 1938. A mere 64 years later, the gospel group recorded this phenomenal set for Real World, their second release for the label. Showing no sign of coming off the gas in their autumn years, Higher Ground is a gutsy, impassioned offering, shot through with gospel fervour and soulful intensity. The boys are aided in their crusade by Robert Randolph?s blowtorch pedal steel guitar (along with the artistry of his Family Band), while additional flavour is provided by that immaculate troubadour Ben Harper.

For over 60 years, the Blind Boys of Alabama have traversed "higher ground" together. Since forming their group at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939, they have kept alive the spirit and energy of pure soul gospel music. Founding members Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott - along with more recent arrivals Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler - have drawn upon gospel's river-deep reflections on life's trials, and mastered its haunting falsettos and vibrant, muscular harmonies. And at ages when most men have retired from life's spotlight, they continue to command the music's heart-pounding vigor as meditation erupts into foot-stomping, rollicking celebration.

Remarkably, the Blind Boys not only represent the highest standard of a charismatic American musical tradition - they also extend that tradition. Gospel has always nourished blues, rhythm-and-blues and rock'n'roll, so it seems only natural for the Blind Boys to have found a calling in transforming popular song back into consecrated writ.

That's been a favored aspect of the group's albums and concerts in recent years. Since first reaching toward a wider audience with their roles in the 1983 production of "The Gospel at Colonnus," (Bob Telson and Lee Breuer's Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway and Broadway smash), the singers have repeatedly reinvented material associated with artists from the world beyond the church. They've transformed Bob Dylan ("I Believe in You") and Richard Thompson ("Dimming of the Day"), illuminating the spiritual message inherent in these soul-searching songs. On last year's Grammy Award-winning "Spirit of the Century" (Real World), they applied that same knack to an eclectic array of tunes drawn from the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits and Ben Harper, with a band that boasted such potent instrumentalists as blues guitarist John Hammond, string maestro David Lindley and harp virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite.

To follow up that landmark recording, the Blind Boys have taken to "Higher Ground." The new album pulls together a rich assortment of classic and contemporary spiritual songs, many from the soul music tradition -- with compositions from Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready"), Prince ("The Cross"), Aretha Franklin ("Spirit in the Dark"), Jimmy Cliff ("Many Rivers to Cross"), Ben Harper ("I Shall Not Walk Alone"), Stevie Wonder's title track, and, yes, even Funkadelic ("Me and My Folks").

But that's not all. "Higher Ground" bridges generational and genre divides in other ways as well. Joining the Blind Boys as a backing outfit is Robert Randolph and his Family Band. The 24-year-old New Jersey musician has emerged in the past two years as one of the most exciting and original artists on the nouveau boogie circuit. He is a leading exponent of the "sacred steel" tradition, which employs pedal steel guitar in Pentecostal church services. Randolph's fiery sound is complemented by the appearance of singer and slide guitar wizard Ben Harper on several tracks. Ben Harper first worked with the Blind Boys at one of his concerts (in New Orleans during Jazz Fest 2001), where they collaborated on several songs before a hushed yet electrified crowd. Ben calls the experience "one of the greatest musical moments of my life."

That lead to more shows together. "Working with the Blind Boys has been the greatest learning tool ever," Ben continues. "I'm a different singer now after singing with them."

Of the Blind Boys covering his songs (on this album and the last one), Ben says "A lot of the songs I write may as well be written specifically for the Blind Boys."

When they went into the studio together to record Higher Ground, Ben got another perspective: "I was amazed at how willing they were to try different things - they had a youthful approach."

And the finished product? "I'm thrilled with it - very, very excited about it," enthuses Ben. "The fact that in my lifetime I've sung on a Blind Boys record is something I probably won't realize the significance of until later. Right now, I'm just living it."

This combination of Harper's talent with Randolph is explosive, as the exuberant Jubilee style gospel vocals of the Blind Boys gets walloping backup from the steely sizzle of Randolph and his crew.

"Something about the music and the sound gets people moving, man," says Randolph, who began playing the pedal steel as a 16-year-old. "The Blind Boys are so important to gospel. No matter what song they sing it's a gospel song. Because they've got that in them. They've got that sound. It was a great experience for me, to be able to record with those guys. They've been making music for a long time." Significantly for Randolph, the sessions reaffirmed something essential to his own style of musical praise-making. "Great music can still be made today," he says. "Great music can be made with live bands, and real instruments, and positive songs, and still have a wide appeal."

That appeal is sure to be enhanced by the sometimes surprising range of songs chosen for "Higher Ground." But as Clarence Fountain makes clear, the distance between a funk-fortified, groove-driven R&B hit and a soul-stirring sermon on the bandstand is only a matter of interpretation. If the message is there, it will shine through. "If the lyrics are right, we'll sing it," he says. "As long as it's not someone talking about 'my baby,' or 'I love her,' or 'please, do it to me!', then it's alright." For example, Fountain cites Prince's "The Cross" (from the 1987 album "Sign of the Times"). "See, he's not singing about his baby and how he loves her. That's why we could sing it, because he was singing about the Cross."

Likewise, tracks such as "Many Rivers to Cross" (from the soundtrack to the 1973 Jamaican cult flick "The Harder They Come") and "People Get Ready" (a Curtis Mayfield classic) are inherently prayerful in their construction, as is "Precious Lord," written for the funeral of a friend's baby. This is a quality the Blind Boys are able to flesh out in a dynamic and richly textured manner.

"Here's the deal," Fountain continues, "if the song is the right song, we sit down and take it apart and listen to the words and see how the words correspond to how we want to sing it. Music is music, and a song is good if you can feel the emotion to really sing it." Evidence of the Blind Boys' ability to "put the Lord in it" - as Fountain phrases it - abound on the new disc. (Just check out the inspired segue from Funkadelic's "Me and My Folks" into a reading of the 23rd Psalm).

At the same time, the Blind Boys' willingness to work with artists from the world of contemporary rock music marks a refreshing openness, and Ben Harper's presence on several tracks is a prime example. "The performance of the song 'Higher Ground,' is so amazing," says producer John Chelew, who returned to guide the sessions after his previous work on "Spirit of the Century." "There was some great guitar interaction between Ben and Robert on the tune. It sounds like something off a Cream record. Ben's got a very psychedelic sound, and there's Robert, playing like he's off in the Florida Everglades, just grooving. It was a big jam."

Most gratifying for Chelew was the Blind Boys' willingness to tackle material they weren't necessarily familiar with. "When people get on in years they get a little less elastic in their point of view, artistically," he says. "But the Blind Boys are almost the opposite of that. They're so youthful. And they show us a version of Christianity that's so comforting and inclusive, that it's hard to say where the art ends and the spirituality begins. The preconceived labels and genres just go away."

Concludes the indefatigable Fountain, "I think this album's a good one. I got my fingers crossed for another Grammy!

Reviews

  • This might just be the gospel and rock albums of the year rolled into one. Rhythms (Australia)
  • 'If you love gospel, blues, soul and funk then you'll want to own this album. Actually, if you love music (and I guess you do as you're reading this) buy this album.' Hmv (UK)
  • Album of the Week 'Gospel and R&B, long intertwined, file into the same pew on this often inspired disc...a sound that will indeed take you higher.' People (USA)
  • Really, really old gospel group makes magic 'Happily, the Blind Boys' second collection of funkafied gospel is even better than the first...This is another stunning set of songs from Alabama's finest, and more proof of gospel's influence on R&B and rock & roll.' Rolling Stone (USA)
  • CD Spotlight 'Their golden years have gone platinum...Higher Ground is arguably a younger-sounding record - bluesier, rougher, funkier.' Milwaukee Journal (USA)
  • 'This is music for the people. This is music for everybody.' The Education Digest (USA)
  • Songlines Recommends '...it goes without saying that there won't be a better gospel record this year. Another Grammy surely beckons.' Songlines (UK)
  • Gospel CD of the Week 'It'll sanctify your soul.' Birmingham Post (UK)
  • Soul survivors '...the harmonies are as delicious as ever...' Wanderlust (UK)
  • 'Higher Ground is a joyous triumph that has both a positive cohesion and formidable substance. It is a remarkable achievement for a group that was founded 60 years ago.' Froots (UK)
  • 'This stirring outfit puts punchy gospel singing over Sixties-style wailing guitar and tremulous Hammond organ, and the distinctive feature on Higher Ground is a soul/funk repertoire... The finale is a gem...' Bbc Music (UK)
  • 'It's hard to believe they could top their Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century, but they have.' Usa Today
  • ...two of the most thrillingly soulful albums to come from the gospel, blues, or soul genres in recent years 2001's Spirit of the Century and the new Higher Ground... Faith, soul and quality by the truckload.' Billboard (USA)
  • The vocal somersaults are wondrous... ...particularly on the self-penned Stand By Me and Jimmy Cliff's Many Rivers To Cross. Ben Harper's three-song cameo is a treat... Q Magazine (UK)
  • 'This follow-up to the marvellous Grammy-winning Spirit of the Century... ...extends further the venerable gospel combo's forays into mainstream pop and rock territory, with covers of secular songs of righteous sentiment. It's an effective formula that serves to reinvigorate classic soul material...Revelatory stuff.' The Independent (UK)
  • ...there is no mistaking the passion and authenticity... ...of this session...music and message combine to stirring effect. Sunday Times (UK)
  • Listen to their brilliant voodoo blues cover of Funkadelic's You And Your Folks... The Observer (UK)
  • 'Proving more popular than ever, the group were recipients of a deserved Grammy award last year for their Spirit Of The Century album. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this album accomplishes the same feat... The Blind Boys are backed by the excellent guitarist Robert Randolph and his Family Band, whose robust, organic arrangements imbue the music with a funky, blues-inflected edge. Sublime sanctified soul from a veritable gospel institution.' Blues & Soul (UK)
  • It is gospel to make you gasp and funk to flex the soul. Scotland On Sunday (UK)
  • "Inspirational" Vanity Fair (USA)
  • "The Blind Boys freshen up classics, masterfully riffing off of familiar melodies. But their honey-and-gravel voices are never predictable. They're always hunting for - and finding - the perfect note or harmony that lifts an old tune into the sublime." Time (USA)
  • In the music on Higher Ground, genres melt away... ...holiness and sanctity are synonymous with the grain of the human voice as it longs for the well of the heart's fulfilment; genres are transformed into the quest for an expression that belies all artificial constructs and aspires to pure spirit" http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Adq6gtr3tkl2x - All Music Guide Review (USA)