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Tuesday Reviewsday: the Blind Boys of Alabama, King James & the Special Men and more

The Blind Boys of Alabama in 2015
The Blind Boys of Alabama in 2015

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 Take Two contributor Steve Hochman stops by with his selections of new music to refresh anyone’s playlist.

Here are his picks: 

Artist: The Blind Boys of Alabama

Album: “Almost Home”

Songs: “Stay on the Gospel Side,” “Pray For Peace”

After nearly 80 years and hundreds of recordings, the the Blind Boys of Alabama have made the album of their lives. Which means, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s an album largely about death. Well, facing death.

The album's title is “Almost Home,” refers to the band members, Clarence Fountain and Jimmy Carter, who co-founded the group after first singing together at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939.

Carter is still going fairly strong, touring with the group, though Fountain has been limited in performance activities by various health issues.   It’s Fountain’s tale that opens the album on the song “Stay on the Gospel Side,” not a lament of his current struggles, but a narrative of his and the group’s history, back to early childhood, and a fierce commitment to sticking to the spiritual message rather than seek pop fame.

The story told on “Gospel Side” was fashioned into song by co-writers John Leventhal and Marc Cohn, after conversations with Fountain at his home about his life. Leventhal, who has produced Rosanne Cash (to whom he’s married) and many others, brought a country-gospel feel to his tracks, a strong foundation for the compelling journey of the singer.

Not all the songs are explicitly biographical, but most tap into the history and the lives of those who lived it. Among the other highlights are the spritely “Pray for Peace” contributed by the North Mississippi Allstars and the folk-soul “Train Fare” by rising star Valerie June.

Arguably, the one less-than-essential song is Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a great one that couldn’t fit the theme better, but suffering from over-familiarity and obviousness. The message of that comes much stronger in the title ballad, which serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece, as it turns from the past to looking ahead: “I’ve come a long, long way from Alabama, I’ve been a long time gone,” the Blind Boys sing. “And I'm almost, almost home.”

Here's a video of them singing another song off of the album, “Singing Brings Us Closer.” 


Artist: David Rawlings

Album: “Poor David’s Almanack”

Song: “Cumberland Gap,” 

Guitarist and music producer David Rawlings is probably most known for his partnership with singer and songwriter Gillian Welch. But once in a while, Rawlings steps forward and while the distinction in the music can be subtle (apart from his voice being up front), the results are both an extension from and expansion beyond Welch’s albums. 

Take the song “Cumberland Gap” here on the new album, “Poor David’s Almanack,"  billed on his name. Where much of Welch’s albums, as well as Rawlings’, take the acoustic folkie root through that metaphorical cultural gap, here the power is revved up in a full country-rock mode, somewhere between “Harvest”-era Neil Young and Gram Parsons, with organ and drums from Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of L.A. band Dawes. 

Elsewhere this hews closer to the expected rural-derived folkiness, with equal measures of rueful restlessness and twinkling playfulness. 

Artist: King James & the Special Men

Album: “Act Like You Know”

Songs: “Special Man Boogie,” “9th Ward Blues”

If you're from New Orleans, you might know that on a Monday night, the place to be is the funky Saturn Bar, where King James & the Special Men hold the stage.

Well, not so much a stage as a chunk of the floor against a wall under a not-so-confidence-inspiring overhead passageway.

The music? Exactly what you’d hope to find in such a setting: swinging, stinging rhythm ’n’ roll with blaring horns and razor-edged guitars from a guy called Porkchop and crisp drums from a guy known as Showtime. And in front, "King" James Horn, a swaggering, staggering, swaying, sassy singer. 

This Monday night things has been strictly a word-of-mouth thing since it started, but word’s gotten out wider, and the time has come for KJ&TSM to make their album debut.

The just-released, “Act Like You Know,” doesn’t capture the full sensory experience of a Saturn Bar night. That’s impossible, and the band smartly doesn’t try, but instead channels the spirit of that and the band’s deep love for various New Orleans R&B, rock and blues traditions into a set of sharp Horn originals.   

Opener “Special Man Boogie” gets right to the point, its rolling, roiling rhythm running back through the Meters via Professor Longhair all the way to Jelly Roll Morton. “Baby Girl” and “Tell Me (What You Want Me To Do)” take the pleading approach in a classic soul-blues mode. “Eat That Chicken” is a frisky double-entendre (or single-entendre, too) shuffle.

Of course, the King James shows at the Saturn Bar can go on for hours with no dip in the party mood. But until you can get there, or get back there, this is a mighty fine slab of specialness. Act like you know, y’know?

“Special Man Boogie” live at the Saturn Bar in May: