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October 2004 Pick of the Month

There Will Be a Light
Artist: Ben Harper & the Blind Boys of Alabama
Label: Virgin
Length: 11 Tracks, 38.57 minutes

In life there are some things that go together so well it’s hard to think of one without the other. Bread and butter, peas and carrots, fish and chips, peaches and cream…

The food analogy is fitting for this review, because after listening to Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama jam together on this album of pure gospel music, I will find it hard from now on to imagine any better musical feast than this complimentary combination of musical talent and spirituality. 

We’ve had a taste of it in the past, with the Blind Boys lending their voices to the Harper tune “Give a Man a Home” on their Spirit of the Century album and of course the fabulous Higher Ground, which featured Harper prominently throughout. It was at another of these meetings to record a couple of tracks for a future release which, as Harper himself says, “blossomed and bloomed into an entire record in eight days.” 

And what a record! Backed by Harper’s band, the Innocent Criminals, Ben and the Boys have written six entirely new songs, reworked some staples from their respective repertoires and thrown in a couple of covers, including Bob Dylan’s “Well Well Well” to produce a blindingly good album (pardon the pun!) 

It’s truly the best of both worlds; the classic sounds of old time gospel resonating with the fiery explorations of a modern, genre-busting blues innovator. Harper’s Weissenborn guitar is in full flight many times throughout, although never heavily distorted. Hammond organ, funk piano and some very natural percussion sounds flesh out the mix on most tracks. “Wicked Man” is a particular highlight. 

It’s predominantly up-tempo fare, with the traditional slow hymn “Mother Pray” shining brilliantly as the only a cappella track. However, I reserve my only proviso for their rendition of Harper’s “Picture of Jesus,” which, in my opinion, doesn’t quite match the heights achieved by Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Harper’s 2003 album _Diamonds on the Inside_. It’s a nice rearrangement nevertheless, and the words are just as powerful. 

I’m strangely at loss for words to describe this album’s impact on me. I was certainly anticipating great things from this release, due to my familiarity with both groups’ back catalogues. The deep yearning voices of George Scott, Clarence Fountain, and Jimmy Carter tap into something primal and timeless that can be sensed beyond the obvious lyrical focus on things eternal. Together with Harper’s passionate alto, the music has an inevitable pull on the soul. 

There’s no point listing lyrics as every song is laden with words of earthy praise and longing for justice set to rich, heavenly harmonies. For the record though, here’s my favorite verse, from the album opener, “Take My Hand”: 

Some days I’m struck with sorrow
Need a place to hide
There’s nowhere else you can put life
But way down deep inside. 
Amen. That’s where this record hits me. 

Considering there are very few members of the original Blind Boys of Alabama left, I’m glad Harper has taken the opportunity to blend his exceptional talents with these great old men of gospel music while they are still with us. It’s also noteworthy that they recorded new songs. To record an album of gospel standards would have certainly been the easier option, and perhaps more instantly accessible. For both these reasons, this album could come to stand as a touchstone moment in both musical and Christian history. As the older generation passes the mantle of faith and musicianship to a younger generation it is re-imagined, reinvented and thus revitalized. There is no doubt that many younger listeners will be introduced to old-school gospel through this album, and they will be the better for it. 

Although the recording sessions only took place between January and March this year, this album could probably have been recorded a century ago. I imagine it might sound even better if listened to on a dusty old scratched vinyl record. For now though, relish the pristine tones of these artists on CD and let’s hope that Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama can get into a studio together for another eight days sometime between now and eternity. If there’s a heaven, this is what they’ll be listening to. 

Brendan Boughen   9/26/2004


 
 
 
 

 

   
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