Ben Harper and the Blind Boys Of Alabama - There Will Be A Light

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If you're one of those pip squeaks that thinks that Usher is R&B or, God forbid, R Kelly is Soul; then you need to learn sharpish. Start here.

 

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Ok. Let me get this out of the way. The sleeve notes that come with this album are sickening, so don't read them. I am willing to believe that Ben Harper and company felt privileged to spend some time in a recording studio with the Blind Boys of Alabama. In fact, I'm sure anybody would. I'm prepared to accept that, when they started recording, they thought they were making something special (they were); but there's absolutely no reason on God's Earth for anybody to write such self righteous, self congratulatory tripe such as this! Oh and they're written, ahem, by "A Witness." I'm happy to accept that this 'witness' felt blessed to be there, in that studio, and I'm really rather jealous of the fact; but where the hell do they think they are? On the way back from Damascus? They sound like a televangelist. And who, I'd like to know, do they think they're talking too? These notes really are annoying. And patronising. And, well, just don't read them. They ruin the beautiful taste of the music and also the packaging, which is rather nice also. I especially like the cover.

 

Right. I'm glad I got that out of the way. It's a shame to start this review off in that manner because, to be honest, I'd find it very hard to say anything bad about There Will be A Light at all. Thing is, we're opinionated sons of female canines here at Incendiary, as you well know, and as much as I just want to get on and write about how bloody marvellous this album is (which I promise I will get too), those sleeve notes really did annoy me and I don't want you to suffer as I did. Ok, that's the end of the subject. Onto the music.

 

Remember when R&B was good? Remember when Soul music was actually soulful? Ben Harper does. The Blind Boys of Alabama certainly do, but then they've been around in one guise or another for 70 years or thereabouts so they better had. Well if you're one of those pip squeaks that thinks that Usher is R&B or, God forbid, R Kelly is Soul; then you need to learn sharpish. Start here.

 

There Will Be A Light is a real, honest to God, Gospel record and it's so good I'd say it deserves to be talked about with same reverence as works by artists like Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, The Staple Sisters, Marvin Gaye and Solomon Burke. In fact, kids, if your parents jumped on the Solomon Burke bandwagon a couple of years ago, when he released Don't Give Up On Me (another great album), then look no further for their Christmas present. Get them this. They'll love you for it.

 

Take My Hand is the type of opening track that just makes you want to get up from the sofa, clap your hands and dance around the living room. The drums are playful, the guitars tease you and the keyboards are sublime. Harper's voice sounds better than I've ever heard it here (and he has some good pipes, let me tell you) but it's the Blind Boys that make it special; whether it's the warmth and comfort you feel from their backing vocals or the 70 odd years of wisdom and truth that surround you when Clarence Fountain sings. He's not the lead Blind Boy for no reason, the man has true soul in his voice.

 

Wicked Man is the rockiest track on here and it skips along rather nicely. Where Could I Go drops the tempo and sees Harper trying to summon up the spirit of Curtis Mayfield and succeeding, for the most part. Church House Steps brings to mind all those great old working songs the Deep South gave birth to back in the dark days of slavery and is one of the highlights of the album, even with its extended guitar solo. 11th Commandment is a wonderful little guitar instrumental that reminds me of Ry Cooder's Paris Texas soundtrack, which means it's very nice indeed and should bring widescreen vistas to mind. It segues perfectly into Well, Well, Well which again brings to mind those old working songs. Harper's really got the blues here, and he has a good warning for you to heed, but you're gonna want to sing this till the cows come home nonetheless. It's fabulous.

 

Picture of Jesus is pure Gospel joy; simple lyrics wrapped around a most joyful tune that you'll want to clap along to again and again. Satisfied Mind is a cover of an old country standard, turned into a determined and focused blues song, that Ben and the Blind Boys really get to grips with. However, they drop the ball with their version of the traditional song Mother Pray. Actually, the Blind Boys do alright by it, but Harper gets too wobbly and intense with the emotion in his voice and ruins it for me. The title track, on the other hand, is as close to perfection as you can get and worth the price of admission alone. Last, but not least, you get Church On Time which ends the album in the same clap happy, toe tapping fashion it began.

 

Now then, I turned my back on the Catholic Church many years ago, for reasons best known to myself, but I was once an altar boy. I carried crosses and candles. I read Gospels and Psalms. I even rang bells and swung that incense holder back and forth but the singing and the hymns were bloody awful. I don't think for a second that it would have been enough to save my faith, but if the Catholic Church had ever made me sing something as delightful as Church On Time then I sure would have enjoyed those services a lot more.

 

You can hear people's faith in Gospel music. It's joyful. When Gospel singers give thanks and praise they actually sound thankful. Ever heard a Catholic sound thankful when they're singing five verses of You Shall Cross The Barren Desert? No. Because that hymn is torture.

 

There Will Be A Light is a wonderful Gospel album, but what makes the album that little bit special is that its not a Christian album. Harper's lyrics never preach to you. There's no thou shalt and shalt not's here. What Harper has done is find a way to express his own spirituality, his own faith, without ever really categorising what his faith actually constitutes. As such, the album is open to everyone of all faiths; which I think is quite an accomplishment.

 

To sum up, There Will Be A Light is a marvellous record. Stunning. Beautiful. Emotional. Spiritual. Heavenly. Hey, listen to me; I'm starting to sound like those bloody sleeve notes. Maybe they had a point after all? Ok that's it. Ignore the sleeve notes and ignore me but don't, whatever you do, ignore this album.

 

Words : Damian Leslie