The Blind Boys of Alabama have been on quite a roll in recent years. High profile discs such as 2001’s Spirit of the Century and 2002’s Higher Ground found crossover appeal not just in the Blind Boys’ weathered harmonies, but also in their choices of sacred-leaning covers from secular sources like Ben Harper, Tom Waits, and the Rolling Stones. The approach landed them four Grammys in four years, so it’s safe to say that these gospel legends are finally getting their due.
Down in New Orleans finds the Blind Boys without longtime lead-vocalist Clarence Fountain, due to his fight with complications from diabetes. In his place, gospel veteran Ben Moore joins longtime Blind Boy Jimmy Carter in leading the group through a dozen gospel standards and covers. A core backing band of pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin, and drummer Shannon Powell provide an old-school New Orleans vibe and a foundation for the disc’s other guests. New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint lends his nimble piano skills to several tracks, while the Hot Eight Brass Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band represent the city’s youth and experience, respectively, throughout the disc. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band consistently provide the feel of stepping into a club in midset, while the Hot Eight’s horn-heavy attack matches the Blind Boy’s still-surprising vigor stride-for-stride. Down in New Orleans isn’t as slick as recent Blind Boys efforts — partly because Carter’s voice holds more rasp than Fountain’s — but it successfully blends the group’s deep gospel roots with the city’s musical identity.
The album marks the group’s first time recording in New Orleans, and a post-Katrina temptation might have been to load the album up with political commentary informed by the city’s situation since the hurricane hit. If there’s any statement being made, though, the band seems to take the simple tack that recording in New Orleans stands on its own. Their approach, decidedly low-key and traditional, sounds like more of a stance of solidarity than an overt political moment. And besides, gospel’s message of hope and triumph might be one of the few sources of comfort in a setting where man’s systems seem like they struggle to sputter along. To that end, the Blind Boys dig deep into the songbook for traditional songs like “Free at Last”, a Toussaint-assisted “Down By the Riverside”, and “Uncloudy Day”.
Perhaps due to the disc’s emphasis on an unadorned gospel message, the covers this time are few. Curtis Mayfield’s “A Prayer” gets a relaxed treatment that rests comfortably on a bed of organ and harmonies, while Jim Reeves’s “Across the Bridge” adopts a jaunty stride courtesy of Preservation Hall’s old-timey arrangement. Allen Toussaint lends a hymn-like quality to Marion Williams’s “If I Could Help Somebody” (a Mahalia Jackson standard), while Earl King’s “Make a Better World” finds a funky horn-driven quality. While “How I Got Over” has been around forever, it’s so tightly associated with Mahalia Jackson that it might as well be a cover. The band’s harmony-rich, restful take stands in stark contrast to rooftop-raising renditions such as Clara Ward’s.
Fittingly, in the same way that it started with the celebration of “Free at Last”, Down in New Orleans ends on a Dixieland jazz-fueled positive note with “I’ll Fly Away”. Propelled by the Hot Eight Brass Band, it’s a soaring treatment that ends the disc on just the right note of hope and optimism.