Music

The Blind Boys of Alabama: Down in New Orleans

The Blind Boys spice up their winning gospel formula with some New Orleans flavor.


The Blind Boys of Alabama

Down in New Orleans

Label: Time-Life
US Release Date: 2008-01-29
UK Release Date: 2008-01-28
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image