CD Review of Down in New Orleans by The Blind Boys of Alabama
Recommended if you like
The Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi
Time Life
The Blind Boys of Alabama:
Down in New Orleans

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


uring the last few decades, it’s become fashionable to proclaim rock “dead,” or “not dead,” or worry about its health in general, which is all very silly, because rock & roll is far too young to even be complaining about hypertension or chronic back pain. Just look at the longest-running rock artists – Dylan? The Stones? Chuck Berry? Mere tots, all of ‘em. If you want a taste of contemporary music with real deep roots, look no further than the Blind Boys of Alabama, the gospel group that’s been kicking ass and taking names for the Lord since 1939. And we aren’t talking about one of those Drifters-style revues with no connection to the original lineup, either – vocalists Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain have been there from the beginning.

The group has been releasing albums since 1948, when Clapton was running around Surrey in his Buster Browns; the Blind Boys have watched with bemused detachment as disco, punk, hip-hop, heavy metal, and everything in between has crawled out of music’s primordial sludge, and they haven’t changed one whit. CDs, 8-tracks, mp3s, the Grammys – all just blips on the Blind Boys’ timeline. For all their years together, however, the group hasn’t run out of firsts: Down in New Orleans represents their first trip to (you guessed it) New Orleans.

Of course, making a “New Orleans album” isn’t exactly out of vogue right now, but trends didn’t factor into the Blind Boys’ decision to venture down NOLA way. As Carter says in the liner notes, “We’ve had it in our minds to work there for awhile, and we decided to do it now to support New Orleans while they rebuild after the hurricane. I can’t get up on a ladder and hammer nails, but me and the guys can sing inspirational songs that will lift people’s hearts while they hammer nails.”

As steadfastly as they’ve held to their gospel roots over the years, the Blind Boys have never been afraid to tinker with their sound, or to cover spiritually-themed secular music, and they do both here. This is a New Orleans record in more than name; the group worked with local musicians – led by pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Ronald Guerin, and drummer Shannon Powell, with assistance from Allen Toussaint, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the Hot 8 Brass Band – and the result is a collection that, while still identifiably a Blind Boys album, manages to present the nearly 70-year-old group in a new light.

On these 12 tracks, the Blind Boys blend their signature four-part harmony with the city’s syncopated rhythms, adding a light soul/funk veneer to the proceedings. What could be better than Blind Boys with some bounce? All of the above plus horns, that’s what. Like bacon, the Preservation Hall and Hot 8 bands make everything they’re wrapped around better, and with five songs between them, they add a bright, joyously raw splash of color to nearly half the album.

Just about the only problem with the album is the fact that it’s being released on Time Life. Not that any label is doing a particularly great job of marketing music right now, but Time Life has a particularly uninspiring track record; the label is essentially a gussied-up K-Tel, and its reputation for compilations such as Country’s Got Hits and It All Started With Doo-Wop won’t help the Blind Boys seem relevant – a large portion of the people who bother to pay attention to Time Life releases will probably end up thinking Down in New Orleans is repackaged older material.

Then again, when you’ve been around as long as this group has, words like “relevant” don’t hold as much meaning as they used to. Whether the marketplace notices or not, the Blind Boys of Alabama will keep on doing what they’ve always done – and, as this album proves resoundingly, getting better as they go.

You can follow us on Twitter and Facebook for content updates. Also, sign up for our email list for weekly updates and check us out on Google+ as well.