Blind Boys of Alabama
"Spirit of The Century"
Real World (2001)
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
It's easy to define Gospel music as "music that's Christian in nature." That's true, but the genre is best defined when split into two categories: Soul-based and blues-based gospel. The content might be the same, but the texture is dramatically different. Groups like the Abyssinian Baptist Choir, which we looked at long ago provide the jubilant music you'd expect to hear at churches around New York City (I've done it, and it's awesome): Hand-clapping and voices rising to the rafters. Blues-based gospel goes back further in history, back to field chants. It's the sound of a people in a rough place, but looking to rise out of it, God willing.
The Blind Boys of Alabama represent the latter. The ensemble's music is rarely depressing, but takes on the instrumentation expected from blues musicians. Guitarist John Hammond lends his hand for the album; The band normally plays all of its own instruments in a live setting, but it doesn't hurt to have help in the studio. The six members are, as the title indicates, blind, but I won't claim this is why they have session help. We've seen already, and we'll see again, that blindness and blues renown have a strong correlation.
2001's "Spirit of The Century" has an appropriate title, as it finds the Boys trying their hand at a collection of covers and traditionals spanning the hundred years, all of which tie into the group's religious themes. Some recognizable artists covered include two tracks from Tom Waits, "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and "Way Down in The Hole," both of which feature primary vocalist Clarence Fountain sounding young enough to carry the group, but old enough to know what he's talking about. "Just Wanna See His Face" is based on a Rolling Stones' original.
Several of the songs feature titles that might look familiar because classic rock artists took traditionals and made hits using the same title. "Motherless Child" is along the same lines as Eric Clapton's version, but the lyrics to "Nobody's Fault but Mine" are far from similar to Led Zeppelin's hit single.
The best song on the album is the group's version of "Amazing Grace" because they took its lyrics and structured them to fit into a classic song, The Animals' "House of The Rising Sun." Hammond provides a spot-on take off The Animals track and the Boys fill in the "Amazing Grace" lyrics perfectly. It's incredible to hear how well they match up. The track features the same mournful tone without the hopelessness present in "Sun."
"Spirituals" isn't far from what I'd call a traditional blues album. There's a lot less moaning about women, but both invoke the Lord plenty in their struggles. I'd recommend the Blind Boys of Alabama for someone who appreciates the music if not the message. Nonetheless, the message packs a punch even if you don't buy into it.
INTERESTING FACT: During a show in Chicago during the group's early years, they performed a gig alongside the Jackson Harmoneers, a group of blind vocalists from Mississippi, and the show was dubbed "Battle of the Blind Boys." The two groups took it in stride and became friends, and the Mississippi group would often accompany the Alabamans on tour.