Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Blind Boys Of Alabama: “Higher Ground” (2002/2016) CD Review

On Spirit Of The Century, the 2001 release from The Blind Boys Of Alabama, the gospel group did a few surprising covers, including songs by Tom Waits and Ben Harper. On their 2002 album Higher Ground, which is now being re-issued, they also do some interesting covers, including material by The Impressions, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder and Prince, moving more in the direction of rock and roll, but this time they are actually joined by Ben Harper on a few tracks, and they’re backed by Robert Randolph And The Family Band. But gospel fans needn’t worry – there are also some classic gospel songs to delight your ears, such as “Wade In The Water.” And this disc actually contains an original tune, “Stand By Me,” written by Clarence Fountain, one of the group’s founding members. This special re-issue includes several bonus tracks, material recorded live for KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” program on November 27, 2002. There are also new liner notes by David Seay.

The CD opens with “People Get Ready,” a song written by Curtis Mayfield and originally recorded by The Impressions. I think the first version I ever heard was that by Vanilla Fudge, which as you might guess is quite a bit different from this version by The Blind Boys Of Alabama. But on this version the group is joined by Ben Harper on vocals and guitar, and by Leon Mobley on percussion. (Leon Mobley is a member of Ben Harper’s band.) This rendition has a great soul vibe, and it’s followed by an Aretha Franklin song, “Spirit In The Dark,” which was the title track to her 1970 record. This version has a delicious gospel flavor, but when it kicks in, it certainly gets closer to rock and roll.

But one of my favorite tracks is a more tradition gospel tune, “Wade In The Water,” which begins with the group singing a cappella and sounding glorious. When the band comes in, the song gains a very cool groove while not losing any of its great gospel appeal. It’s followed by another highlight, “Stand By Me,” written by Clarence Fountain (so no, not the Ben E. King song), and featuring some good work on guitar.

Prince is on many people’s minds these days, and we’re certainly hearing a lot of versions of “Purple Rain.” But back in 2002, The Blind Boys Of Alabama did an interesting rendition of Prince’s “The Cross,” a song from his 1987 double album, Sign O’ The Times. It’s a pretty good version, and this re-issue is rather timely. (Now I want to hear The Blind Boys Of Alabama cover “Darling Nikki.” Sorry, can’t help it.) It might be surprising to hear this gospel group cover Prince, but it’s perhaps just as surprising to hear them cover Jimmy Cliff. The first reggae album I ever bought was a Jimmy Cliff cassette, a live album, and “Many Rivers To Cross” was one of my favorites on it. The Blind Boys Of Alabama do something really interesting with this song, making it a pretty and moving soul tune, with some touches of country. And it works beautifully, feeling like a very personal and meaningful interpretation.

The Blind Boys Of Alabama then get funky with the CD’s title track, Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” a song from his 1973 album Innervisions. Ben Harper and Leon Mobley join them again for this track. They also join the group on the following track, “Freedom Road,” a cool gospel tune. The Blind Boys Of Alabama do a Ben Harper song on this album, as they did on Spirit Of The Century; this time it’s “I Shall Not Walk Alone,” from Harper’s The Will To Live.

Bonus Tracks

This disc contains seven bonus tracks, all recorded live on November 27, 2002 for the KCRW program “Morning Becomes Eclectic.” None of these tracks have been previously issued. The first is actually a song the group included on Spirit Of The Century, “Run On For A Long Time.” This is a good version, with some nice work on bass, and it’s followed by the gospel number “My Lord What A Morning.” This track is all about the vocals, and it’s wonderful. Delivered a cappella, this song is gorgeous and powerful. And then they get into some of the songs from Higher Ground, including “Freedom Road,” “Higher Ground,” “People Get Ready” and “Wade In The Water.” The CD then wraps up with “Amazing Grace.” Like the version on Spirit Of The Century, this rendition of “Amazing Grace” is done to the tune of “House Of The Rising Sun.”

CD Track List
  1. People Get Ready
  2. Spirit In The Dark
  3. Wade In The Water
  4. Stand By Me
  5. The Cross
  6. Many Rivers To Cross
  7. Higher Ground
  8. Freedom Road
  9. I May Not Can See
  10. You And Your Folks/23rd Psalm
  11. I Shall Not Walk Alone
  12. Precious Lord
  13. Run On For A Long Time
  14. My Lord What A Morning
  15. Freedom Road
  16. Higher Ground
  17. People Get Ready
  18. Wade In The Water
  19. Amazing Grace 
This special re-issue of Higher Ground is scheduled to be released on May 13, 2016 through Omnivore Recordings. That same date will also see a re-issue of The Blind Boys Of Alabama’s 2001 CD Spirit Of The Century, which likewise has several bonus tracks.

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