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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Artist: Kevin Max
Label: Infinity/Blind Thief (indie)
Time: 10 tracks/34:28
Do you remember the old line: “what’s black and white and red all over?” Well, there’s a new answer – all you have to do is listen to Kevin Max’s, The Blood, to understand that, under the mostly black and white cover art, the project is all about red - blood red, as a matter of fact. Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have always been songs about the blood of Jesus and many of them rather explicit, lyrically, when taken out of their theological contexts. “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emanuel’s veins / and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains,” read the words of one classic hymn – to the uninitiated, the lyrics might conjure up the latest Rob Zombie gore-fest, but to anyone brought up in a Protestant, and especially, fundamentalist context, songs about being washed in The Blood, covered by The Blood, and saved by The Blood of Jesus, are songs that laid the foundation of a faith that is anchored in a bloody reality that has become the core of our religious experience. These are not nice songs, but visceral confessions of one’s knowledge of the price paid for our spiritual freedom – little wonder, then, that so many of these songs about ‘the Blood’ became staples of the African American church experience, harkening all the way back to the songs from the days of slavery and the yearning for social, as well as spiritual, deliverance. The emotional, soulful, physically involving music borne out of those days was fertile ground for the growth of, not just blues and rock and roll, but spirituals and many of our hymns. Obviously, the musical roots not only go deep, but continue to feed a cultural tree that produces musical fruit that has led to the myriad of styles of Christian music that we have today, even though we don’t always recognize where it all came from.
None of this is lost on Kevin Max. With his musical feet planted firmly in the forefront of modern music, Kevin, on The Blood, acknowledges his gospel roots, not by mimicking or trying to re-create what’s gone on before, (other artists, such as Russ Taff, on his Under Their Influence project, have done this) but by re-inventing some of the great gospel music that influenced him throughout his life. Not wanting to concentrate only on the past, Max also pays tribute to more current spiritual songs by contemporary artists such as Prince and Stevie Wonder, and even contributes a song of his own, “One Way – One Blood,” as authentic-sounding a piece of Americana as any I’ve ever heard, as the album’s closing track. My point here is that this isn’t merely nostalgia, or purely a tribute album, but a project that seems to have come from Kevin Max as a necessary exploration of some of the fundamental underpinnings of his musical and spiritual essence, and – thankfully – he’s invited us along for the ride.
“The Old Rugged Cross,” starts the CD off with a simple, basic acoustic guitar, strumming the chords and adding a few tasty slide licks, while Kevin offers a very up-front, un-adorned vocal, the only added effect being the sound of a needle dropping on old vinyl, the way Max probably used to hear it played at home or on the radio (AM, of course), scratches and all.
Following immediately, and opening with acoustic guitar as well, is “The Cross,” a song written and originally recorded by Prince. Barely two minutes into the track, the song opens up into a fully-produced rock-edged pop song sounding suspiciously like dc Talk; this isn’t too surprising, since Toby and Michael do, in fact, join Kevin on this track, which features a great performance of a great song, and ends with that signature dc Talk harmony ringing out from your speakers. For those who have been waiting for this to happen – well, here it is….
Although the third track is based on an arrangement by The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Run On For a Long Time,” is where the project really begins to flex some musical muscle, with the amazing John Painter (of the much-missed Fleming and John) really cooking on horns and bass, and with guest vocalist Chris Sligh (yes, the one from American Idol) turning in some impressive phrasing, seemingly uninhibited by ‘The Max Factor” (I just had to get that in). Look for this as a single.
The traditional “Trouble of the World,” is, for me, one of the most impressive tracks on the CD; Max seems to channel Cab Calloway as he moans and wails an incredible vocal performance. John Painter once again adds his special touch with some melancholy New Orleans-style jazzy horn work, and the ubiquitous Phil Madiera adds some of the best Hammond B3 work this side of Procol Harum, as he creates an appropriately mournful ambiance and has some wonderful interplay with the piano. This track comes totally away from the modern pop idiom and takes you to another place. Wonderful work here. We then go even farther back with the stark bottleneck guitar and hand-percussion tribute to Blind Willie Johnson: “I Know His Blood Can Make Me Whole.” Blind Willie Johnson did most of his recordings in the twenties, and Max manages to capture the spirit of those vocals without resorting to imitation, which would have been disastrous instead of being the engaging triumph that this song is.
“Up Above My Head” is another familiar song, done call-and-response style, which isn’t so much of a surprise, except that the call and response is between Kevin, Amy Grant and Vince Gill – three names that I would never have expected to see credited on the same track. The song is bright and fun – a timely change of pace from the previous two tracks. All three singers get their vocal licks in, and we also get to hear the amazing guitar work of Mr. Gill. Yes, it’s pretty-much a country tune, but it fits right in.
Some brief backward-sounding electronic effects precede the piano accompaniment that ushers in “They Won’t Go When I Go,” an amazing song that features Kevin’s amazingly wide vocal range as he provides the lead vocal and a thick blanket of background vocals as well. The music builds slowly, with the Hammond B3 joining the piano to chilling effect. This very memorable song, written by Stevie Wonder, might just stay with you for days once it gets into you: there’s a very haunting quality to the track that makes it a classic.
…and speaking of classics, the next track is perhaps Andre Crouch’s signature composition – “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power,” presented here as if Max just stepped up to the altar, nodded to the musicians, and began singing the ‘special song’ just before the sermon would start. The song is performed very straight, very ‘churchy,’ with passion and reverence. On this track, “Up Above My Head,” and the next track, “People Get Ready,” background vocals are handled by the amazing Ashley Cleveland and Judson Spence, among others. And speaking of “People Get Ready,” certainly, the song has had more than its share of covers, and Kevin’s is a soulful duet with Mary Mary’s Erica Campbell, whose soaring vocals are matched by another amazing guitar break from Vince Gill.
Surprisingly, Kevin goes country again on the closing track, where he’s joined by Joanne Cash, on the bouncy, optimistic “One Way, One Blood.” This is a bright, sing-along type of song which ends and then seems to return, briefly, in an a cappella hand-clapping coda, backed by what appears to be carnival sounds. Explanation? Kevin Max is still Kevin Max – an enigmatic and mysterious ‘Christian-pop star’ if ever there was one…
Of course, that last statement is a bit facetious, but Max is, indeed, perceived as one of Christian music’s ‘bad boys,’ since he has not always played the CCM game according to the rules – all the better for us, since we’ve been treated to solo projects from Max that have gone ‘outside the box,’ and ventured into artistic and sometimes experimental places where many artists fear to tread. Perceptions aside, it’s interesting that the most explicitly Christian-themed project one can imagine has come from this, the somewhat ‘dangerous’ member of dc Talk. The Blood is a project that pays homage to the past without neglecting the present. The musicianship is tasteful and impressive, as is Max’s amazing voice, called upon here to fit into a variety of musical settings. Co-produced by Max and William Owsley (who also played guitars and bass), the album is has an appealing sound that is both polished and raw at the same time, avoiding any over-use of studio tricks. In many ways, this was a risky work, coming from an artist that we’ve seen go from edgy pop, to European art-rock, and even to a rather avant-garde spoken word project with no less than Adrian Belew. The experiment was a great success, with the only drawback being the running time, clocking in at just under thirty-five minutes: but it’s time very well spent.
If you’re in need of a good musical transfusion, you need The Blood.
By Bert Saraco