The Blind Boys of Alabama
Down in New Orleans
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2008, Volume 15, #1
Written by John Metzger
Mon January 28, 2008, 02:00 PM CST
Even if the recent slate of cross-collaborations between The Blind Boys of Alabama and the contemporary stars of rock and pop haven’t been completely successful, it’s still rather refreshing to witness a nearly 70-year-old gospel group that is willing to take a few risks with its work. While its pairings with Ben Harper, John Legend, and Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab might have felt as if they had been forced into place, they also went a long way toward raising the vocal troupe’s profile. On its latest foray Down in New Orleans, The Blind Boys of Alabama doesn’t forsake the notion of pushing its music into new spaces or seeking assistance from other artists. This time, however, there aren’t any moments when the group appears to be distracted by its associates. In fact, the resulting endeavor unwinds so naturally that one is left to wonder why, with all of the wandering that The Blind Boys of Alabama has done over the past decade, it took the ensemble so long to venture onto this particular path.
Although the core trio that supports The Blind Boys of Alabama — keyboard player David Torkanowsky, drummer Shannon Powell, and bassist Ronald Guerin — maintains an unobtrusive profile, it nonetheless succeeds in its efforts to keep the music on Down in New Orleans quite malleable. Meanwhile, the rotating cast of special guests — The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, The Hot 8 Brass Band, and legendary pianist Allen Toussaint — provides plenty of color and texture to the proceedings, combining horns and strings to evoke the impassioned, joyous atmosphere of a Crescent City church service.
Not surprisingly, the arrangements on Down in New Orleans settle mostly upon a lively blend of jazz, blues, and soul that shimmies and shakes as it moves from the funky refrains of Free at Last to the banjo-and-tuba-driven testifying of You Got to Move to the brassy bliss of Uncloudy Day. Yet, the ballads are equally strong: The Blind Boys of Alabama not only wrenches genuine anguish over the world’s suffering from Mahalia Jackson’s If I Could Help Somebody but also provides comfort to the lost and lonely narrator of Curtis Mayfield’s A Prayer.
The liner notes to Down in New Orleans indicate that The Blind Boys of Alabama stepped outside its comfort zone and had to adapt its style to fit the loose, flowing rhythmic propulsion that is typical of the Crescent City’s musical heritage. Whatever the collective did couldn’t have been too difficult, though, because Down in New Orleans is a rapturously uplifting set of salvation-seeking spirituals that likely would be considered a classic outing, if only it had been issued several decades earlier. ˝
51st Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Traditional Gospel Album
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box