Not so long ago, their performances under the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz Fest felt like a well-kept secret to the hungover rock fans who gathered there among the genuinely faithful. But now, pop culture has embraced the Blind Boys of Alabama with an enthusiasm no one could quite have expected. Sheer longevity and relative good health seems to have guaranteed the singers a touch of that, as if they were indefatigable emissaries from some ephemeral theme-park of Southern consciousness: Jubilee Land! But instead of declining into, say Branson, Missouri cheesiness, the Blind Boys sharpened their focus.
One thing that's obvious, comparing the group's older recordings with more recent collections—such as last year's HIGHER GROUND—is the greater complexity of arrangements and instrumentation, and the blossoming variety of the vocals. These albums, with their phalanxes of special guests and session aces, risk the "all-star blues revival" syndrome, in which elder "legends" who have never claimed their due are trotted out with rock stars du jour. The legends get a nice paycheck. The rock stars fulfill an adolescent fantasy. The music stinks. Not so with the Blind Boys. If, at times, the production is a touch over-calculated, the singing always brings it back home. And the group's hot-footing showman, Clarence Fountain, is too danged ornery for it to be any other way.
Rewarded with back-to-back Grammy Awards, the performers fear no evil—and can do no wrong. They cover songs by Tom Waits, Prince, and even The Rolling Stones, with an ear for the spiritual message—the yearning, perhaps—embedded in the secular. Or, at least, the Blind Boys find the most gospel-friendly material from performers whose absorption of gospel feeling is evident, even as they walk in sin.
This is not a big thing to Clarence Fountain. This is the natural thing. "I'm singing gospel and that's the end," he says. Fountain is propped up in bed, as lunchtime nears in a Day's Inn hotel room on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He's still in his underwear—the silky stage duds are stashed in the closet—but he's got those pitch-black hundred-dollar wraparound shades that only a blind man can wear with such authority. (Two-thirds of your onstage presence, he insists, "is how you dress.") He's dragging a bit. A head cold has littered gravel over his red-carpet baritone, and a late night at the Jammy Awards—the Grammys of post-hippie rock—has him off to a slow start. The Blind Boys shared the stage with Robert Randolph, the astonishing sacred steel guitar player, and that amplified whine was too loud for Fountain. "Ooooh, God," he says, making a shushing noise. "I'm not singing rock & roll. You might hear a rock & roll tune. But listen to me. See what I'm singing about. I'm not singing about 'Darling, I love you' or 'Bring it on home to me.' No. I'm singing about the Lord. So ever how I turn a song around, it doesn't matter, I'm still singing about the Lord. Pick the right song at the right time and you hit the jackpot. You can make a song. Make sure you're singing the right words, and singing them at the right time, and singing about what you singing about. My forte is to sing about God. He said the cattle of a thousand years belonged to Him. So if He can keep the cows going, I know He can keep me going."
Look at Sam Cooke, he says. Sam Cooke, a memory, a moment of eternity on an all-night oldies station. Sam Cooke made his choice. Clarence Fountain made his. "Me and Sam was buddy-buddies. We recorded for the same label. When the man gave him a contract he gave me one, too. He offered me one, I just didn't take it. I thought it was a thing that he shouldn't have done. But listen, you can't control people. Y'know? They have a mind of their own. And I think that the Lord gave me a few more years, just for that particular thing that I did. I ain't saying it's true! But I'm here, and he gone. Sound like I could be right, y'know. So, I'm here. He give you longevity. He give you what you deserve. Hezekiah prayed to Him to give him fifteen more years. He was sick on his deathbed—heh!—God gave it to him. Y'know. I feel like He done the same thing for me."
Let's not overlook the fact that gospel and blues and r&b and rock & roll are all guided by an essential transformational energy. It's that alchemical "flash of the spirit" that takes an ordinary observation—"Bring your sweet loving on home to me," "Don't wanna walk and talk about Jesus, I just wanna see his face"—and makes it gigantic, the heart's loudest thrum of desire, and whether it's carnal or spiritual, it feels very much the same. The Blind Boys stay grounded in the latter, but they found a way to satisfy those of us who still subscribe to the way of all flesh. And make our hearts thrum, just a little bit louder now.