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The Blind Boys of Alabama have been singing gospel since 1937 and still boast a couple of original members, notably leader Clarence Fountain. Performing jubilee-style gospel, mostly a cappella, The Blind Boys' rumbling and soaring vocals are an earthy toe-tapping delight. In 2003 they were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and won a Grammy award for "Higher Ground," which featured contemporary blues stars. The Blind Boys' next two albums have been experiments in taking guest appearances even further.

In late 2003 they recorded "Go Tell It on the Mountain," a collection of holiday songs performed with a host of vocal talent. Along for the ride were Solomon Burke, Tom Waits, Michael Franti of Spearhead, Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Shelby Lynne, George Clinton, Me'Shell Ndegeocello and Les McCann. The results were mixed. Burke, Waits, Hynde, Staples and Lynne all scored winners, with Waits' turn on the title cut perhaps the strongest of all. Strangely, Aaron Neville's "Joy to the World" was one of the weakest — the voices just never clicked. Staples' "Born in Bethlehem" offered the best example of celebratory, mayhem-inducing gospel, when the spirit really takes over. For the magic moments that can be found and a backing band featuring Duke Robillard and John Medeski, this is a recommended disc.

In 2004 The Blind Boys joined soulful funk rocker Ben Harper for an album of Harper's gospel-style originals. On "There Will Be a Light" the results are again uneven. Chalk it up to material that isn't always strong enough and the frequent disconnect between Harper's voice and the rest of The Blind Boys. The Boys were underused on some cuts, and a traditional number or two might have been nice to see what Harper and the Boys could have stirred up on a non-Harper song. "Take My Hand," "Wicked Man" and "Church on Time" are catchy and rousing, with plenty of soul, but much of the rest is mediocre, with one wishing that Harper had backed off a bit and allowed The Blind Boys to lead the charge. — Andy Garrigue

The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at the Carpenter Center Dec. 18, with Virginia's own jubilee-style gospel group The Paschalls opening. For tickets, call 262-8100.


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