Album Review: I'll Find a Way by The Blind Boys of Alabama
Very Good, Based on 7 Critics
American Songwriter - 80 Based on rating 4/5
The Blind Boys of AlabamaI’ll Find a Way(Sony Masterworks)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate the music of the Blind Boys of Alabama or the message of faith, redemption and devotion they espouse, but it’s also likely that once you listen to their newest opus, I’ll Find a Way, you’ll feel a new surge of spirituality. It’s a credit to this venerable vocal group that even despite the obvious effort to bring them to a knowing Americana audience — courtesy of cameo appearances from such notables as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (who produced this set),Patty Griffin, Megafaun‘s Phil Cook, Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs, Sam Amidon, and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden – the Blind Boys reaffirm their traditional MO with a profound combination of gospel hymns and reverberating revelry. It’s a credit to all concerned that those contemporary elements infused in I’ll Find a Way, the latest in a string of albums that’s brought them renewed appreciation over the past decade or so, meld so seamlessly with the traditional tack the group’s various incarnations have pursued since its first formation in the late 1930s.
Insouciance isn’t a gospel word, yet that’s what makes the Justin Vernon-produced I’ll Find A Way so engaging. Here the iconic Blind Boys of Alabama sound more joyful, jubilant and ready than ever, their faith a source of palpable euphoria, whether laced with tuba, tambourine or resonator guitar. The Bon Iver leader makes Way a progressive, rootsy affair.
Make no bones about it—Blind Boys of Alabama are an American gospel institution. Coming from these longstanding delegates of the genre, even a slapdash record of tried and true gospel songs would still have shifted its fair share of units. But here we are with I'll Find a Way—essentially a collaborative album with artists who've largely only found prominence in the last half a decade or so.
For these gospel titans' latest album, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver brought the group to his Wisconsin studio and added sparse production to its lush traditional harmonies. The marriage is not perfect. The various cameos (Sam Amidon, Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards among them) can make the Blind Boys seem like guests on their own LP. Still, the Boys' performances are first-rate, and Vernon's duet with Blind Boy Jimmy Carter on Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" sustains the uneasy balance between sacred and secular, contemporary and ancient, that defines this set at its best.
During the one and only time I saw the Blind Boys of Alabama, they struck me as quite a unit. In the middle of a gig by Peter Gabriel in 2002, he introduced the song “Sky Blue” by admitting that it was just not coming together in the studio. The solution he eventually found? The Blind Boys of Alabama. In Gabriel’s words, he “brought them in and they nailed it”.
Justin Vernon may seem a curious choice to produce a Blind Boys of Alabama record. But adventure has been the group's M.O. during the 21st century, as they've collaborated with musicians of almost every stripe, with varying degrees of success. I'll Find a Way was recorded over four days at Vernon's Wisconsin studio, with arrangements and musical direction from Phil Cook played by a handful of players, and hosting an array of contemporary vocalists including Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Casey Dienel (White Hinterland), and Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs), among others.
Blind Boys of Alabama I'll Find a Way (Sony Masterworks) Formed at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind the same year Germany invaded Poland, the Blind Boys of Alabama are nothing short of an American institution. The gospel legends spent four days holed up in a snow-covered Wisconsin cabin with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver for I'll Find a Way. Vernon hand-picked the band and a mix of traditional hymns, originals, and secular covers.