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Down in New Orleans
Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama
Length: 12 tracks / 43 mins
A decade or so ago, the Blind Boys joined Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and re-invented their format. Moving forward from their standard gospel presentation, but without compromising the spiritual integrity of their material, they began to offer vocal and instrumental spots to guest artists, such as Ben Harper, Chrissie Hynde, Tom Waits and even Lou Reed. This disc is like a ‘third way’ version of their music. The guests here, including Allen Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, are mainly local instrumentalists successfully helping to create a pervasive New Orleans vibe, rather than featuring as special guest vocalists in the normal gospel style. As a result, the whole disc has a far jazzier feel than normal.
Although they have played in New Orleans (they could hardly avoid it, having been formed back in 1939), they had never recorded in the city before. Part of the idea this time around is to inspire flood victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the liner notes, founder Jimmy Carter remarks, “I can’t get up on a ladder and hammer nails, but me and the guys (sic) can sing inspirational songs that will help lift people’s hearts while they hammer nails”. It sounds like the Blind Boys got the best part of the deal there.
New Orleans lends other heroes to this release. The city’s gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, who shared stages with the Blind Boys, wrote “If I Could Help Somebody” and “How I Got Over”. New Orleans blues guitarist and lifelong resident Earl King wrote “Make a Better World” - a secular song, whose message is kingdom-minded enough for the band to include it.
Old though the Blind Boys might be, they are not yet on God’s front porch and waiting for an invitation into the house. Even though they sing at one point, “I’m tired and I want to go home,” there is a vitality about the performances here that makes you wonder if the idea of retirement has even crossed their minds and what they would do with themselves if they weren’t singing.
That said, there is a fair bit of content that dwells on heaven, especially as a relief after the sufferings of earth. This may be deliberate, with the tracks regularly allocated every odd number on the disc. But this heavenly focus could be a side-effect of singing the classic gospel songs of the South, written to help blacks face discrimination and oppression, rather than thinking about their own mortality. These standards include a hugely energetic “Free At Last;” a version of “You Gotta Move” that features tuba and banjo as it blurs the boundaries between gospel and jazz; and “I’ve Got a Home”.
As you’d expect from a band that insists on sticking to its Christian base, God gets some good name-checks: you go to Mahalia Jackson for hope, strength and inspiration, not for subtlety. “You Better Mind” warns that “You’ve got to give account at judgement,” while “How I Got Over” - a strong contender for best track - overflows with gratitude to God.
Other than on the couple of tracks where the Dixieland is quite blatant, where this disc does offer subtlety is the way that the jazz-influenced backing changes the rhythms and harmonies. Carter comments. “New Orleans musicians have a different feel to their rhythm. They play with syncopation, a push and pull. We had to make some adjustments to get used to that beat, but it wasn’t hard”. The loose feel of jazz and the raw power of gospel is a heady combination that packs a feel-good punch.
While this won’t go down as the best Blind Boys disc – age has left its mark on their vocal chords, despite the band’s best intentions - it is filled with big songs and shows a fresh, jazzy aspect to their work as living legends of gospel.