Music Midtown gets spiritual
The Blind Boys of Alabama tap into the spirit of the century with a new album, an extraordinary band and a special appearance at this year's fest
Music Midtown always rolls out a healthy number of old-timers and this year brings a typical cast of veterans, both seasoned (Bob Dylan) and overripe (Night Ranger). However, there's nobody — this year or in years past — who can approach the stunning longevity of the Blind Boys of Alabama's six-decade career.
Led by founding member Clarence Fountain — who, amazingly, started at age 8 and is still a member at 72 — the traditional gospel vocal group have in recent years enjoyed a renaissance of mainstream notoriety. They've shared billings with the likes of Tom Petty, Green Day, Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King, routinely whipping secular crowds into a frenzy with their show-stopping, audience-roaming antics and electrifying fervor.
One of those who fell under the Blind Boys' spell was producer John Chelew, best known for his work on John Hiatt's acclaimed Bring the Family album. While putting together 1994's Richard Thompson tribute, Beat the Retreat, Chelew first encountered the group, singing back-up on Raitt's contribution. "That's when I started thinking about what a great band they were," he says by phone from his L.A. home. "But I didn't like the albums they were making. They had '70s synthesizers and drum machines. So I spoke with their agent about making a rootsier sort of disc, one that would have the same kind of power as the great early gospel recordings of the '40s and '50s."
The opportunity finally came seven years later, when Chelew scoured his Rolodex and brought together a roots supergroup featuring world-fusion multi-instrumentalist David Lindley and blues guitarist John Hammond (both of whom also perform solo sets during Music Midtown), harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite and Richard Thompson's rhythm section, drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Danny Thompson. The aggregation, which had never played together and did not know the Blind Boys' music, nevertheless locked in for four long and intense days in the studio. Hammering out impromptu arrangements for a totally acoustic set that incorporates songs by Jagger/Richards, Tom Waits and Ben Harper along with radically reworked standards "Motherless Children," "Amazing Grace" (done to the melody of "House of the Rising Sun") and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," they worked quickly and efficiently with an innate skill and sixth sense that only accomplished musicians possess.
What emerged was Spirit of the Century, not only the best-ever Blind Boys release, but a wildly passionate and infectiously rocking album no doubt headed for the top of critics' best-of lists, if not necessarily the sales charts. With Thompson's rubbery, stand-up bass anchoring the charge and Musselwhite's eerie harp nudging against the languid, intertwining swampy guitars of Hammond and Lindley, the Boys tear into these songs with a renewed vibrancy belying their age. The skillful backing band never overplays, leaving space for the gritty, soulful, adrenaline-fueled vocals to fly.
There's clearly a crackling energy here that transcends the grooves, partially brought about by the deadlines of limited studio time and the availability of the musicians. "We did the 12 songs with everyone together in the same room. The musicians knew it wasn't going to be overdubbed later, so they gave us a little more. Just that extra 8 percent was incredible. The first complete take was usually the best, even with a few mistakes, because it has that excitement — almost fear — and that gets on the tape."
It'll get onto the stage too, as this remarkable band, which is only scheduled to perform two live gigs to promote the record, will converge at Music Midtown for a set that'll rank among the rarest of concert experiences. Don't miss it, because when the Blind Boys of Alabama sing, their sacred harmonies turn even the unrepentant sinner into a true believer.
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at Music Midtown twice: with the Spirit of the Century band, Sat., May 5, at 8:45 p.m. on the Ford Focus/Fox5 Stage, and without the band, Sun., May 6, at 5:30 p.m. on the Turner South Stage. In addition, two Spirit of the Century band members perform separate sets: David Lindley appears Sat., May 5, at 5:45 p.m. and John Hammond's Wicked Grin appears Sun., May 6, at 6:45 p.m., both on the Ford Focus/Fox5 Stage. For more information, visit www.music midtown.com or call 770-MIDTOWN.??