During the one and only time I saw the Blind Boys of Alabama, they struck me as quite a unit. In the middle of a gig by Peter Gabriel in 2002, he introduced the song “Sky Blue” by admitting that it was just not coming together in the studio. The solution he eventually found? The Blind Boys of Alabama. In Gabriel’s words, he “brought them in and they nailed it”. Partway through the song, the four elderly blind men rose up on a platform in the center of the round stage. As they sat in their chairs, each holding a wireless microphone, the one sound created by these separate voices washed over the arena. They weren’t even words, they were gently-cadenced “oh"s (if you’ve seen the film Rabbit Proof Fence, you can hear the same theme over the end credits). It was a special moment of the evening, demonstrating how just a few carefully placed gospel voices can elevate the music. In other words, the Blind Boys nailed it.
The past decade has been kind to the Blind Boys of Alabama, with many Grammys and accolades rolling in from critics and the music-buying public at large. So I guess it was only a matter of time before they crossed paths with the indie-folk scene. I’ll Find a Way finds the Blind Boys collaborating with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Shara Worden of My Brighten Diamond, Sam Amidon, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Casey Dienel and Patty Griffin. Of I’ll Find a Way‘s 11 tracks, the five that the Blind Boys do without any outside help are the most pure and satisfying. The remaining six featuring these guest stars can be seen as sitting on a sliding scale, in that some are less distracting than others.
One thing that is especially distracting is that many of these guest vocalists have pretty, dainty voices with an inability to mesh with the sonorous sounds of the Blind Boys of Alabama. It makes the project practically scream WE ARE LOOKING FOR CROSSOVER APPEAL, FOLKS. This goes for Shara Worden, Casey Dienel, Justin Vernon and especially Sam Amidon. Worden is too occupied with the perfect old fashioned ‘s’ consonant to inject any feeling into Theodore Lucas’s “I’ll Find a Way (To Carry It All)”, and Dienel’s vocal affectations spill into her enunciation on “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table)”. I really can’t tell what she’s singing half the time. It’s strange to hear Justin Vernon’s voice with no reverb on Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”. Without the guise of Bon Iver, he’s a mumbler. It’s too bad, because this is a lovely arrangement of the tune. When one of the Blind Boys swoops in for the rescue on the second verse, it’s a breath of fresh air.
“I Am Not Waiting Anymore”, a delta funeral march, gets sanitized by Sam Amidon’s narrow vowels and diphthongs. When he sings “I’ve been building my house in vain”, it really sounds like he just doesn’t give a crap. Merrill Garbus’s voice, as arguably garish as it is, does more favors for “I’ve Been Searching” than one might conclude. She and the Blind Boys lob lines to one another, sometimes as a call-and-response and sometimes as just one lead with some back-up. Patty Griffin is saved for last on Charlie Parr’s “Jubilee”. Griffin would have a good voice for this track if she would just quit trying so hard; less breathing into the microphone, tone down those drawls and know when to let the music do the talking. Again, it’s a great arrangement, filled with enough pep to justify it as an album closer.
What’s left is comfort food. I’ll Find a Way kicks off with a southern rock pump through “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds”, bolstered by an electric guitar with the tremolo on. “I Shall Not Be Moved” is even snappier, which is nice since I almost fell asleep in my seat when I heard Greg Brown perform the same tune live. The one awkward track left to speak of is “Take Me to the Water”. The lead is sung in falsetto, which is fine. But then that falsetto goes up and up and up some more. Before long, I felt my throat begin to contract almost out of sympathy. As unnatural as it sounds, newly recruited Blind Boy Paul Beasly is hitting all of the right notes in that upper register. Nailing it. I’ll Find a Way won’t go down as a Blind Boys of Alabama classic, but at least 50% of it certainly brings the goods.