Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama: There Will Be A Light
Sound/Style: Novel update of gospel and blues, mixed with rock and soul
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Musical worlds collided in 2001 when the venerable gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama joined a handpicked aggregation of roots musicians for the Spirit Of The Century project. Though critically acclaimed and not lacking in superb performances, the album smacked of trying to be a socio-musicological “event” with its self-conscious attempts to both refashion antique spirituals and spiritualize songs by modern secular acts. As it turns out, the album gave the 50-year-old gospel group a foothold in the popular consciousness, laying the groundwork for their new collaboration with soul-rock alchemist Ben Harper. Harper’s chance meeting with the Blind Boys at a Paris show, where they joined for an impromptu gospel standard, proved so inspirational to all involved that they committed to further work together. The result of their subsequent recording sessions is the Virgin release There Will be A Light, a rousing collection of mostly new material that packs a visceral punch only hinted at on the Blind Boys’ 2001 secular debut. Fans of Harper who are unacquainted with gospel are likely to find this collaboration a minor revelation.
It goes without saying that the Blind Boys’ galvanizing vocal presence would be a plus in any musical context, as it surely is here. What requires mention is the remarkable synergy created by Harper, his band and his high-quality original songs, which pump warm young blood into the gospel and blues genres while maintaining a respect for those musical traditions. While contemporary artists have been known to embrace gospel as a means of spicing up their sound, Harper makes it the main course and garnishes it with everything from rustic country-blues (“Picture Of Jesus,” “Church House Steps”) to Otis Redding-styled soul (“Where Could I Go”) to funky rock (“Wicked Man”). Had Lenny Kravitz pursued the musical trajectory of his debut disc Let Love Rule instead of the rock star path he now treads, he might have arrived at something much like “Wicked Man,” which puts an earthbound spin on the Bible’s promise of joy coming in the morning: “while one’s living high another’s grieving/but what’s sweet by morning is bitter in the evening/the wicked man shall fall.”
For younger listeners, perhaps the disc’s biggest challenge is the a cappella version of “Mother Pray,” a straightforward reading of the traditional “Mother Pray”. The track, which features pre-rock sounds from a time when Christian thought was a bedrock of American life, serves as a connecting point between two seemingly disconnected realms when taken in this pop context. Lyrically, There Will Be A Light traverses the gamut, touching on spiritual sentiments both veiled and overt and addressing joy and sorrow alike. Still, there’s little question of Harper’s commitment and sincerity when hearing phrases like “they say freedom is just a place to hide/now I’m coming to you with my arms open wide/where else could I go but to the Lord.” If the title of There Will Be A Light intends to suggest a brighter flash still to come, Ben Harper and the Blind Boys have provided a slow-burning torch of rootsy, soulful songs that will illuminate the path in the meantime.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.