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Go Tell it on the Mountain
Artist: Blind Boys of Alabama
Length: 12 tracks (43 mins)
This must be one of the best Christmas albums of recent years. If there's any risk of 'fifties nostalgia, it's not because of peddling a snow-filled virtual world full of crackling fires and robins, but because the Boys were in their prime back then, having started out the decade before. As it is, the band, who have consistently refused to compromise their spiritual stance, are equally determined to make this a feast of extended gospel, rather than give way to the cosy tweeness of many Christmas releases.
This 2003 disc (also available on DVD) fits their line of inviting guest performers to add to their music, as The Chieftains would often do. Clearly it's a smart move to bring in new audiences, but the Blind Boys do it so well that they lose little of their own identity, while gaining plenty of musical texture – as well as friends – along the way.
The collaborations work particularly well with black artists, where the voices blend and the shared culture brings a joyful synergy. Solomon Burke's lead is just such a case, and Michael Franti's sub-woofer intro to “Little Drummer Boy” re-invents the song, giving it a much-needed injection of cool.
The other song that would normally send listeners running for cover is “Away in a Manger,” which is transformed here like Clark Kent in a 'phone box. The Hammond growls and the singers groan as a smouldering twelve-bar blues builds up, ready for Robert Randolph's pedal steel to go where pedal steels rarely venture.
Tom Waits may not be black, but he makes it feel like he is, with his low growl blending naturally into the Blind Boys' soundscape. Otherwise, the white voices pack less of a punch. Chrissie Hynde is most disappointing. It's fine to be yourself, but her vocal styling here is simply inappropriate. If she had sung straight all the way through, her version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” could have been beautiful, but she deliberately stutters from the start, as if it puts more emotion into the performance. All it does is detract.
Aaron Neville is, well, Aaron Neville. If you don't love his vocal style you will probably just smile, bewildered. Other singers include Shelby Lynne, the legendary Mavis Staples and Les McCann, who gives us a fine, jazzy “White Christmas” that eschews any kitsch.
But mention has to go to two of the backing players. John Medeski offers a great Hammond solo on “I Pray on Christmas,” but standing out is the ubiquitous Danny Thompson on double bass. He shines throughout like an advent star and the space around him on “Silent Night” really lets him take the spotlight. Recommended.