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Music to Your Ears...Ben and the Boys

02/01/2005 - Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama: There Will Be a Light

For nearly all of us, there exists somewhere back in the family catalogue of experience a scene like this: A tightly knit group of family and friends gather beside a wide, slow moving river, bathed in the shade of ancient Cypress trees and towering pines. A wizened old preacher stands waist deep in the water, one hand on the shoulder of a new believer, the other stretched toward heaven. On the shore, the congregation closes their eyes in rapt meditation, remembering the day they became new again. Somewhere, a man begins singing a song. It's an old, old song, a melody contrived deep in the Scottish highlands, carrying words penned by a medieval English monk, and injected with soul-wrenching reverence while sweat-drenched workers slaved under the blistering sun between rows of cotton. Soon everyone joins in, and the believer goes under…

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama have come together to make one of the most moving, musically evocative albums I've heard in a long time. It's sweltering, down south church house music, the culmination of hundreds of years of cultural borrowing and swapping. As separate entities, both Ben Harper and the Blind Boys have created some pretty incredible stuff over the years (over sixty years for the latter!). Ben's astonishingly soulful voice, his bluesy, psychedelic guitar playing, and remarkable song-writing skills have marked him as one who will be making important music for years to come. As for the Blind Boys, their rock solid singing and spiritual presence have served to establish them as icons for over a half century. And now we have them collaborating, and the results are…perfect.

Harper wrote the majority of the songs on "There Will Be a Light," with notable exceptions being "Satisfied Mind," which was made famous by country music legend Porter Wagoner, and "Mother Pray," which is an old and often covered bluegrass standard. Both songs are transformed by the soulful interpretation rendered by Ben and the Boys. The strongest pieces on the album for me are "Well, Well, Well," and "Wicked Man." The former is a hair-raising, gut-wrenching, down and dirty cautionary tale of the wages of sin. The latter is a cool, groovy, testimony to the narrowness of the narrow road, and it sounds like it was recorded in about 1971, which I consider a positive thing, given my open disdain for the majority of "music" being made and marketed these days.

I mentioned that the majority of us have a common ground, a catalogue of past experience that I would consider to be our roots. Like it or not, the modern American experience is grounded in these deep, spiritually saturated roots. It's no secret that there have been pointed, concerted efforts to extract this spirituality from our society and culture, and to do away with it completely. It will never happen. It can't. It's who we are, and Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama have served us a moving reminder of this truth. Buy this disc, turn your stereo way up, and get happy.

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