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 [email protected]