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Blind Boys of Alabama see the light

Bon Iver's Justin Vernon takes the reins with I'll Find A Way

Keeping the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama hip isn't as difficult as one might think. The journeymen gospel group, now in its seventh decade, has attracted internationally respected musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Ben Harper, Tom Waits, Robert Randolph, Richard Thompson, and Michael Franti, among others, to guest on recordings like the commercial crossover renaissance, 2001's Spirit of the Century. But those stars are long in the tooth compared to Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, My Brightest Diamond singer Shara Worden, and tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus, all of whom contribute to the recently released I'll Find A Way.

The hardworking Blind Boys' ninth release of the 21st century was recorded primarily at producer Vernon's April Base studio last winter in the wilds of rural Wisconsin. That isolated, snowy setting and the generally bucolic nature of longtime fan Vernon and bandmate Phil Cook's approach yields a rootsy program that features the Blind Boys both singing lead and backing up others on a varied set. Selections include everything from Bob Dylan's graceful "Every Grain of Sand" with Vernon's haunting vocals adding to the traditional gospel of "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There."

With voices as vibrant and powerful as those of the Blind Boys, Vernon wisely keeps the instrumentation stripped down with some tracks such as the traditional ballad "My God is Real" utilizing only piano, B3 Hammond organ, upright bass, and the most subtle of touches provided by vibraphone and a barely there drum kit. Clinking percussion, jazzy sax, and piano propel a riveting version of the Chi-Lites' "There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God is Seated at the Conference Table)," an unusual yet inspired choice that features a career-making vocal from White Hinterland's Casey Dienel. Veteran Patty Griffin takes control on the appropriately named "Jubilee" for a rollicking, closing rave-up.

Other singers like Worden and the phenomenal Garbus, who wails like a combination of Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, and injects R&B gusto into "I've Been Searching," occasionally take the spotlight. That infuses the proceedings with a diverse, slightly more contemporary groove, yet their gutsy performances maintain the righteous church vibe.

Not everything clicks, though. Folkie Sam Amidon's wispy style makes him sound lost on a leaden arrangement of "I Am Not Waiting Anymore" and the New Orleans funeral march stomp of "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There" never quite gel. But when everything connects as it does on a rousing "I Shall Not Be Moved" and a bluesy "Take Me to the Water," the album reaches spine-tingling heights. Not to mention the newest Blind Boy Paul Beasley's falsetto reportedly moved the musicians in the control room to tears.

On paper, this might seem to be a calculated strategy aimed at reaching a younger audience by incorporating artists on the periphery of many Gen Y-ers' radar. But thanks to Vernon's steady hand, and the inspiring voices of the Blind Boys who stay grounded in their own extensive history, it's a successful experiment that at no time feels forced. On the contrary, Vernon's smart song choices, sympathetic band, and low-key arrangements that are both fresh and classic help keep the philosophical and spiritual faith that are as much a part of the Blind Boys as their ever-present dark glasses and uplifting celebration of positivity and life. Some things just never go out of style.