Music Review: The Blind Boys of Alabama offer funky rhythms with old-school harmonies

The Blind Boys of Alabama, "Down in New Orleans" (Time Life)

The longest-running gospel vocal group around establishes their mission with their version of the gospel standard, "Free at Last," which opens their new album, "Down in New Orleans." Old-school, quartet-style harmonies, as solid as an ancient church pew, testify over a funky rhythm that struts like a street carnival.

"Down in New Orleans" brings together two of American music's richest traditions: The roof-raising vocal harmonies of gospel music with the loose-jointed rhythms of New Orleans rhythm-and-blues. It's Sunday morning music for a rowdy Saturday night, as righteous as a baptism and as carnal as a bump-and-grind dance.

The venerable Blind Boys of Alabama, formed in 1939, are down to one original member, 75-year-old tenor Jimmy Carter. The once-robust tenor's voice is a whisper of its old self, as is evident during his parts of the country church standard, "Across the Bridge."

But the group keeps rotating in new members, and Billy Bowers, who takes the majority of lead vocals, growls and shouts with an earthshaking command. Bowers transforms standards like Mahalia Jackson's "How I Got Over" and the folk-protest song "Down by the Riverside" into spirituals as festive as a Mardi Gras parade.

CHECK THIS OUT: The Blind Boys get goosed with second-line energy when hooking up with the young Hot 8 Brass Band on a percolating version of "I'll Fly Away."


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