The concept of artists from across the generations working together isn’t a new one but it isn’t always a huge success. Too often there’s an unnecessary desire to add a new, younger dimension to the sound of musicians who are doing just fine already thank you very much. The Blind Of Boys Alabama have been singing gospel for an astonishing 74 years now, winning five Grammys in the process yet are hardly household names. Putting them in the hands of one of the hippest young musicians around (plus some of his mates) could easily be seen as a shortcut to changing that state of affairs.
The young hands in question are that of Justin Vernon, not only a musician from the old school but also a long-term gospel aficionado. Given the stripped down nature of his early days Bon Iver incarnation, for once it would seem the perfect match. Opener ‘God Put A Rainbow In The Cloud’ suggests otherwise however. With a big production, complete with unnecessary guitar solos, it takes the vocal group down a path that doesn’t entirely suit them.
Fortunately, it turns out to be the only such duff moment. Vernon has taken seven decades of history and distilled it into a record that presents the band on their terms. Which means the Blind Boys are doing essentially what they’ve always done – singing songs of faith and devotion. Such is their conviction that even the most unspiritual of hearts will find it hard not to be moved.
Yet the record’s true highlights come from an unexpected source. It may underplay their status a little, but it is when the gospel group step aside to let others take the mic that I’ll Find A Way shines brightest. The juxtaposition of female voices (Patty Griffin, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden) is lovely, adding another element to their sound after all these years. Vernon himself gets a look in on ‘Every Grain Of Sand’, sounding pleased as punch to be there, yet it’s two more tracks that really stop you dead – one expected, one less so. Having come from the independent US folk scene it’s perhaps no shock to find Sam Amidon holding his own on the stirring ‘I Am Not Waiting Anymore’, but who would have predicted that Merril Garbus of tUnE-yArDs would turn in such a show stopping, gospel diva performance as she does on ‘I’ve Been Searching’? The joy experienced by all concerned is tangible. It’s an emotion that you can’t help but share.