Frontman Clarence Fountain and Boys, including fellow founding members Jimmy Carter and George Scott, along with Joey Williams, Ricky McKinnie and Bobby Butler, boldly cover songs that till now have been associated with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Prince to George Clinton.
More than simply a collection of creatively covered familiar tunes, Higher Ground is an example of regenerated melodies and musical ideas being given a entirely new direction. The Blind Boys make them all their own.
Songs that till now may have only been tagged with an ‘inspirational’ banner take on an entirely stronger message, thanks to the knack that Fountain and crew have for emphasizing the nugget of the Gospel message that they have found in them all.
For example, once you hear The Blind Boys sing “The Cross” (written and originally sung by Prince), you will find it hard to go back to the original version.
What makes Higher Ground a veritable powder keg is the combination of the potent, tried and true harmonies of the septuagenarian Blind Boys, with the incendiary House of God-trained sacred steel edge of newcomer Robert Randolph and the Family Band. The fusion of pedal steel guitar and those time-tested Blind Boys vocals, with the occasional fuel of Ben Harper guesting on guitar and voice takes things straight into bonfire territory.
The title track “Higher Ground” is a wide open jam featuring Harper on his searing wah-wah guitar, Randolph and band providing the steady steel guitar drive and Fountain kicking it into overdrive with his interpretation of the familiar Stevie Wonder lyrics.
Likewise, “Me and My Folks” is unforgettable as Fountain reverently speaks the 23rd Psalm in gravelly tones over the groove of Funkadelic’s famous firestorm melody.
In contrasting style, the laidback version of Curtis Mayfield’s long-popular and nearly over-covered “People Get Ready” has never sounded as spiritually profound, with the Blind Boys putting special emphasis (and glorious harmony) on the repeated line, “I believe”. Again, Randolph and his pedal steel speciality make the song soar.
Fountain and Boys go back to mid-century sounds on sparsely accompanied songs such as “Wade In The Water”, “Freedom Road” and “Precious Lord”, while Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers To Cross” is touched with Randolph’s sensitive pedal steel stylings as Fountain provides a sense of vocal urgency over top.
Intensely listenable and invigoratingly fresh, Higher Ground deserves all the accolades that it is bound to generate, and more. So don’t be surprised if the Blind Boys find themselves thanking the Academy once again.
EMI Gospel / Real World
— reviewed by Stan North —
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