Spirit of the Century

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Released 24 April 2001

  1. Jesus Gonna Be Here
  2. No More
  3. Run On For A Long Time
  4. Good Religion
  5. Give A Man A Home
  6. Amazing Grace
  7. Soldier
  8. Nobody's Fault But Mine
  9. Way Down In The Hole
  10. Motherless Child
  11. Just Wanna See His Face
  12. The Last Time

Liner notes

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.

Further Listening

  • Jubilation

    The Holmes Brothers

    Released 09 March 1992

    Sublime gospel meets juke-joint blues. The Holmes Brothers give us a soul-stirring re-invention of a timeless collection of songs from the American gospel canon in one memorable live performance captured at the Real World Recording Week in 1991.
  • Champagne and Grits

    Little Axe

    Released 20 September 2004

    Little Axe is the project Ohio musician Skip McDonald started in the early 1990s to reconnect himself with the blues of his childhood. His dad, a bluesman and steel mill worker, taught him blues guitar before he was ten years old.

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