Behold the power and passion of gospel. Sure, most types of music carry some semblance of power and passion per listener, but there’s nothing like a little spiritualism to drive that very point home. Gospel, of course, is one of the oldest forms of music (along with classical and blues — in fact, gospel and blues share a lot in common) but one constant with the genre has always been and will always be the message. It continually revolves around a higher power, and even if artists in other musical styles try to incorporate those messages into their work, it’s not as effective as the full-blown, in-your-face delivery that gospel offers.
Even spreading the word of the Lord can be done in different ways. You have gospel, which is commonly associated with Black performers (think revivals and spirituals) and you have Christian, more associated with White artists (old Amy Grant, for instance), yet it’s not a question of skin color as much as one of tradition. All you need to do is attend a Roman Catholic mass then hit a Baptist mass to clearly see there’s a difference. Christian music is more serious and solemn, while Gospel can have fun invoking the message.
What makes the Blind Boys of Alabama so special (and so popular over the last few years) is that they have the capability, through both voice and conviction, of making gospel accessible and appealing for all religious groups. While their message remains deadly serious, it’s presented in ways that are less so. This also transcends into the secular world, where gospel is little more than an afterthought.
There is nothing quite like experiencing the music of the BBoA, whether coming out of your personal stereo or from a stack of amplifiers on a stage. This is not just listening but rather an interactive experience, tapping into feelings you have either suppressed or flat out never knew you had. Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and (sadly, the now late) George Scott hold a pair of powers that when combined, very few have ever or will ever possess: Voices given by the Good Lord himself, and a living, breathing belief in the power of said Lord. This trio is the epitome of CONVICTION!
(Note: Scott died at his home (Durham, NC) in his sleep on March 9, 2005. He was 75, and had retired from the touring aspect of the band, but contributed his terrific tenor vocals to Atom Bomb.)
As it turns out, the Blind Boys of Alabama had more fans as fellow musicians than they ever knew. Folks like Peter Gabriel (whose record label has the BBoa on its roster), Robert Plant, Lou Reed, Ibrahim Ferrer, Jars of Clay, Chrissie Hynde and Ben Harper all appeared with the trio in one form of musical adventure or another. And the BBoA found newborn success when they teamed up with producer John Chelew. Starting in 2000, that particular merging of producer and talent led to the Grammy winning Spirit of the Century, which featured the killer version of “Amazing Grace” (sung to the music of “House of the Rising Sun”). Two years later, Chelew and the Boys nailed another Grammy for “Higher Ground”, which featured Robert Randolph and the Family Band as backing instrumentalists. One year later, ho-hum, another Grammy for the guest-laden, Christmas/Gospel disc Go Tell it on the Mountain. And once again, Chelew is the man in charge on the BBoA’s newest release, Atom Bomb.
As usual, there are guests on the disc, but they are more along the lines of willing backup players. Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo is one such visitor, as is blues harp master Charlie Musselwhite, keyboardist Billy Preston, and rapper The Gift of Gab (from Blackalicious) yes, RAPPER. This is not your standard gospel album, nor your standard Blind Boys of Alabama album. Certainly, the lyrics are still about the same thing, but it’s the presentation that’s changed — and it’s more adventurous than their other enjoyable bodies of work.
The title song is a cover of a 1950 hit by the Soul Stirrers, about trying to use salvation to solve problems rather than simply blowing them up, and it’s sung in a 1950’s harmonic style, with Scott handling lead vocals. Though covering this song constitutes a mild surprise, it pales in comparison to what follows: a cover of “Demons”, which was originally done by Fatboy Slim, collaborating with Macy Gray (from the album Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars). Now add to this a hip-hop beat with an actual rap from The Gift of Gab, and you have the makings of the most incongruous confluence of old-time gospel and modern-day rap – and yet, this sucker actually works! The seamless melding of Gab’s words with the Blind Boys’ vocal backdrop defuses any notion that the two genres can’t co-exist.
Preston’s organ and Hidalgo’s simple, tasty licks are the perfect framework for Fountain’s laid-back leads on “Talk About Suffering”, while Musselwhite adds a nicely restrained solo. Carter takes his excellent turn on “I Know I’ve Been Converted”, but the killer track is a remake of the standard “Old Blind Barnabas”, where Scott really lets loose. The idea for the band doing the song came about during the sessions for the Go Tell it on the Mountain, which featured a batch of guest stars. It was one of those guests, Tom Waits, who suggested the Boys would do well by remaking the song — he was right. This is one of those tracks where everything else takes a back seat to Scott’s leads and the harmonies of Fountain and Carter.
A remake of one-hit wonder Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” was a natural, and Hidalgo’s fuzz tones are contextual with the song: they’re obvious, but not overly so. And his duel in the bridge with Musselwhite sounds great. Hidalgo’s guitar gets even fuzzier on “Faith and Grace”, and it’s the only instrument (aside from a bass drum) in the song where Carter and Fountain take turns singing lead. “New Born Soul” is a stroll down the lane, musically speaking — slow and easy. The Boys also tackle another natural, the Blind Faith classic “Presence of the Lord”. Fountain’s vocals are from-the-gut, and Preston’s work makes the song stand out. The album closes with “Moses”, the one tune that was arranged in pure gospel fashion. The harmonies shine, as the BBoA once again execute their harmonic perfection.
Sadly, the Blind Boys of Alabama won’t be the same with the loss of Scott. But while they were together for over 60 years, they’ve left quite a legacy, and even if it was late in their careers when they broke into the mainstream, once they got there, they never left. Clearly, the Blind Boys of Alabama are one very talented band, regardless of genre, and they saved their best effort for last. Atom Bomb is da bomb. In fact, it’s already on my list as one of the absolute best albums of 2005. R.I.P., George Scott.