Scrolling Headlines:

Minutewomen stunned by last-second free throw -

January 19, 2018

UMass hockey returns home to battle juggernaut Northeastern squad -

January 18, 2018

Slow start sinks Minutemen against URI -

January 17, 2018

UMass three-game win streak snapped in Rhode Island humbling -

January 17, 2018

Trio of second period goals leads Maine to 3-1 win over UMass hockey -

January 16, 2018

Small-ball lineup sparks UMass men’s basketball comeback over Saint Joseph’s -

January 14, 2018

UMass men’s basketball tops St. Joe’s in wild comeback -

January 14, 2018

UMass women’s track and field have record day at Beantown Challenge -

January 14, 2018

UMass women’s basketball blows halftime lead to Saint Joseph’s, fall to the Hawks 84-79. -

January 14, 2018

UMass hockey beats Vermont 6-3 in courageous win -

January 13, 2018

Makar, Leonard score but UMass can only muster 2-2 tie with Vermont -

January 13, 2018

Pipkins breaks UMass single game scoring record in comeback win over La Salle -

January 10, 2018

Conservative student activism group sues UMass over free speech policy -

January 10, 2018

Report: Makar declines invite from Team Canada Olympic team -

January 10, 2018

Prince Hall flood over winter break -

January 10, 2018

Minutemen look to avoid three straight losses with pair against Vermont -

January 10, 2018

Men’s and women’s track and field open seasons at Dartmouth Relays -

January 10, 2018

Turnovers and poor shooting hurt UMass women’s basketball in another conference loss at St. Bonaventure -

January 8, 2018

Shorthanded, UMass men’s basketball shocks Dayton with 62-60 win -

January 7, 2018

Northampton City Council elects Ryan O’Donnell as new council president -

January 7, 2018

The Blind Boys of Alabama, “Duets”

The Blind Boys of Alabama formed their singing group 70 years ago, and have been performing and recording gospel music ever since. As the legends of the industry they’ve become during that timespan, its not suprising that they have collaborated with a number of notable musicians. “Duets,” their newest release, anthologizes the past 15 years of these collaborations in 14 tracks, three of which were recorded solely for this album.

The 14 names gathered for this collection mostly cover the blues and country spectrum (Randy Travis, Solomon Burke, Asleep at the Wheel), with a few surprising and eclectic exceptions like Lou Reed and Jars of Clay. What each artist chose for this compilation seems to share with listeners a sort of gospel influence, even if only some would never be classified under that genre. The Blind Boys merely coax out that sanctified Southern sound, playing a supporting role on every song, and accomodating its presence with a spirituality ranging from vaguely to powerfully Christian. But fear not, secular listeners – the religious overtones are easily palatable, sounding more like a pop trope than anything else.

The first track, Ben Harper’s “Take My Hand,” is a lively New Orleans blues groove that sets the framework for the rest of the album. Harper takes the lead and the Blind Boys hit the big refrains, tossing in occasional soulful interjections. As such, the boys are not really the centerpiece of the album, but rather a thread connecting songs ranging in style from Charlie Musselwhite’s rockabilly to Toots Hibbert’s reggae. Instead of changing the well-realized tone of the other artist’s tunes, the Blind Boys’ unmistakable voices highlight the gospel core already present in the pop form.

This formula works brilliantly on almost every song on the album, with the exceptions of the tedious Toots Hibbert track “Perfect Peace,” and the overwrought “Secular Praise” with Timothy B. Schmit. Unless you’ve never heard The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” the rendition here with Lou Reed will probably not impress. Still, the Blind Boys remain the redeeming features on the album’s weak points, selling otherwise uninteresting music with big, deep harmonies.

The highlights are the danceable, uptempo tunes. The Blind Boys drop a smooth lament behind Charlie Musselwhite’s rowdy “I Had Trouble” and give a vocal weight to Asleep at the Wheel’s cover of the western swing number, which is practically a commercial jingle by Fred Rose, titled “The Devil Ain’t Lazy.” The infectious Southern flavor on these tracks might have been a step too close to Dukes of Hazzard if not for the Blind Boys’ grounding. The concoction is undeniably fun.

The Blind Boys of Alabama close the album with John Hammond on a beautifully doleful blues dirge: Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” rearranged by the Blind Boys and retitled “One Kind Favor.” Hammond’s acoustic slide guitar sounds appropriately in its death throes, and his low, dusky voice resonates with an eerie fragility over the calmly humming harmonies of the Blind Boys.

What makes “Duets” so engaging is that it does not feel like The Blind Boys of Alabama have invited 14 artists to the studio to try gospel with some legends. The boys are instead guests on their own album, providing a stirring backdrop for a group of musicians with a surprisingly heterogeneous set of musical styles. Additionally, each individual track’s lead musician invariably sounds like the hero of the song, with the Blind Boys singing a subtle but ever-present spiritual conscience. There is something so unpretentious and universally pleasing to the ear about the style of the Blind Boys that it would be hard not to at least appreciate their contributions here. Heck, they even make the Jars of Clay sound satisfying.

Garth Brody can be reached at gbrody@student.umass.edu

Leave A Comment