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Making a Better World 

Everyone knows the speech, of course, but hardly anyone knows the song," says Charles Driebe, manager for the Blind Boys of Alabama. He was talking about 'Free At Last," the 'old Negro spiritual" Martin Luther King quoted in his iconic "I Have A Dream" speech, and which the Blind Boys recorded on the new album Down in New Orleans. The gospel group performed the song at a special 8 a.m. mass at St. Augustine's Church this past September to kick off the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation-sponsored Congo Square Rhythms Festival, after which they followed the Hot 8 Brass Band as it led a second line through the Treme and into Congo Square. The whole event was dizzying with the weight of symbolism and emotion, especially considering the adversity that had struck the Hot 8 (the murder of Dinneral Shavers), the church and the neighborhood in the past two years, not to mention the significance of the square itself in the city's musical history. If any band was capable of channeling the spiritual energy of the place and time and turning it into a joyful noise, it was the Blind Boys and its praise music. With God on their side for more than 60 years of performing, the members make bands like the Rolling Stones look like raw greenhorns. In recent years, the gospel group has enjoyed new popularity on the hipster circuit " not to mention winning four Grammys " due to inspired collaborations between its soulful spirituals and contemporary purveyors of hip-hop, rock and R&B. In the recent past, the rediscovery and reinvention of vintage purveyors of funk and soul has become a bit of a trend, with acts like Charles Walker and the Dynamites (who played New Orleans last month) and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings (who'll be here next week) enjoying new popularity. Hardly needing to be resurrected, though, the Blind Boys have simply evolved with the times, mixing secular sounds with worship music and performing and recording stellar collaborations with contemporary artists ranging in style from Ben Harper to Gift of Gab. At the 2005 Grammys, the elder statesmen even appeared onstage with Kanye West.

'We're trying to involve more young folks in our music. We're doing a lot of collaborations, because the young people relate to that," says Jimmy Carter, a founding member of the group, which formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Blind.

For its latest, Down in New Orleans, which drops next week, the members installed themselves at Piety Street Studios in the Bywater (where Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, who guested on the album, recorded their 2005 Katrina-inspired masterwork River in Reverse).

'New Orleans was the primary objective we had in mind," says Carter. On the record, the group used a New Orleans jazz combo for the main band " pianist David Torkanowsky, bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Shannon Powell. They were joined by the Hot 8, Toussaint and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on several tracks, as well. For Carter, with more than 80 years experience singing the praises of a Protestant God, sharing the studio with youngsters fazes him much less than some other effects of his re-energized career.

'I've never sung in a Catholic church like that before," he says. 'It shocked me a little."

'It was a New Orleans rhythmic concept on a Southern gospel vibe," David Torkanowsky says, adding that the New Orleans musicians were hardly hired guns. They selected and worked out the songs from scratch in the studio with the vocalists. 'We didn't go in there knowing. But we went in believing." Most of the tracks are traditional spirituals " two of the selections are associated with New Orleanian Mahalia Jackson " spiced up with New Orleans-style brass and beats, except for 'Make A Better World," made famous by James Booker and, later, Dr. John.

'We sing songs that carry a message, and "Make A Better World' carries a good message, I think," Carter says. 'Because the world needs to be better."

click to enlarge The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded Down in New Orleans - at Piety Street Studios. - SHANNON BRINKMAN
  • Shannon Brinkman
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded Down in New Orleans at Piety Street Studios.
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