Higher Ground – Blind Boys of Alabama
It is a given that one would have certain expectations before listening
to Higher Ground — an album that includes a group of men who have
singing together for over 60 years backed by a band led by a 24 year old
phenomenon that has been tearing up the music scene for less than two years.
You might expect to hear some nice harmonies over-powered by a raucous
pedal steel. Or a primarily a capella album with hints of
instrumentation here or there. Rather, the Blind Boys of Alabama and Robert
Randolph and the Family Band have joined together to release a
wonderfully paced album, with every piece fitting just so.
One common thread between both the Blind Boys and Randolph is a
foundation in gospel music. Mix in the soulful playing of Ben
Harper and you have a music that resonates in a spirituality that cannot
find in many other releases. And the spirituality expresses itself not only
the song selection, it comes through the voices of the Blind Boys
and Randolph's pedal steel. What immediately stands out is
a maturity and bit of reserve — there do not seem to be any extra notes
on this album. This is a testament to the growth – and, surely, respect – of
Robert Randolph. On Higher Ground, this spirituality comes through
the music of Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Cliff,
Funkadelic, and Stevie Wonder, with traditional gospel songs mixed in
for good measure.
The album begins with the quiet strumming of Ben Harper on Mayfield's
"People Get Ready". Then, one voice joins in, soon followed by Harper
singing falsetto… and the album begins. Not with a bang, like a
sprint, but with the ease of a night-time stroll. Sure, there are spots
of flashiness, but they are tasteful twirls and hops. The album moves
from the traditional spiritual of "Wade In the Water" to a bouncing "Stand
By Me" (written by the leader of the Blind Boys, Clarence Fountain) to a
soaring take on Prince's "The Cross". Robert Randolph's playing is
especially tasteful on Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross".
The song that seems to stand on its own is "I Shall Not Walk Alone", a
Ben Harper original. And, as a bit of a twist, this is a track that does
not feature Harper — simply voices and a piano, a cymbal tap here and
there. What stands out is the work of John Ginty. Ginty is known for his
great organ work with the Family Band, playing off of the energy of
Randolph. But, on "I Shall Not Walk Alone", it is his beautiful
piano work that makes the song. For any fan of Ben Harper – or music in
general, for that matter – this song is worth the price of the album.
If you purchase Higher Ground expecting an album exactly like
The Word, you are going to be disappointed. Yes, it comes from the
gospel tradition of The Word – music born of church services – but it
guided by the wisdom of men who have been making music for the Lord for
over 60 years.