Led by the indomitable Clarence Fountain, the Blind Boys of Alabama formed in 1939 when Fountain and four other students from the Talledega Institute for the Blind began sneaking off to sing at a local military base as the Happyland Singers. In the '50s, by then known as the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Fountain and his partners were among the most celebrated groups on the church community's equivalent of the chitlin circuit, the famed gospel highway. They've been soldiering in the army of the Lord ever since, but that doesn't mean they don't sometimes sing the blues.
That's what Spirit of the Century is about. The album takes place at some crossroads outside of town, in the wee hours when Saturday night has yet to give way completely to Sunday morning. The most obvious example of this secular approach comes when the Boys sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun," but they blend the sacred and the profane all along. Many numbers are religious here only because it's the Blind Boys singing them ("Motherless Child," for example, or their cover of Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home"), while others are derived from some decidedly irreligious sources (the Rolling Stones' "Just Wanna See His Face"). Really, this isn't a gospel album so much as it is an offering of sanctified blues.
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Sanitized blues, too. On Century, the Blind Boys' glorious harmonies bend over and around slide guitars courtesy of David Lindley and John Hammond, harmonica by Charlie Musselwhite, and drums and doghouse bass. This should have been good news. But Fountain, a bull-horn-voiced house-wrecker who's used to flying above far sparser accompaniment, feels muted by the lineup's fussy, antiseptic version of the blues. Of course, part of this may be the result of Fountain's own diminished capacities (he's in his eighties, after all) and part because of the more blues-based songs he's singing, which don't demand the ecstatic release that comes with being possessed by the spirit. It's the NPR-ready playing, though, that leaves the album so flat. Even so, Fountain's moans and the strained leads and scuffed harmonies of original group members George Scott and Jimmy Carter remain untouchable. Fountain's is a born-preacher's voice, a charismatic, sandpapered growl. He may be held frustratingly down to earth here, but he's such a great singer that even his whispers sound like those of a sinner on his knees in prayer.