Producer John Chelew's work over the last half-decade with the Blind Boys of Alabama is the greatest late-career reclamation project this side of Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings series. Chelew matched the septuagenarian Blind Boys -- Clarence Fountain, Jimmy Carter and George Scott -- with songs by the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Ben Harper, Stevie Wonder and others, and with younger musicians of note including Harper, Robert Randolph and David Lindley. The albums garnered the Blind Boys Grammys, impressive sales and a whole new audience. But mostly, they worked because the novelty factor of these pillars of gospel music singing, say, a Prince song never took them in any direction they weren't willing or able to go. No one is going to make a fool out of Clarence Fountain at this stage of the game.
The Blind Boys continue to stretch on Atom Bomb, making their first foray into hip-hop with a remarkable take on the Fatboy Slim/Macy Gray tune "Demons" (featuring a rap by Blackalicious emcee The Gift of Gab). They also have a bit of fun with the Norman Greenbaum chestnut "Spirit In The Sky" and deliver a prayerful version the Blind Faith classic "Presence Of The Lord". Guest musicians include Los Lobos' David Hidalgo on guitar, Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and Billy Preston on organ.
As ever, though, the Blind Boys' individual performances and harmony singing on tradition-minded numbers such as the title track (an old Soul Stirrers tune), the blues-drenched "Talk About Suffering", "Old Blind Barnabas" and the stunning closer "Moses" are the real story here. Fountain, Carter and Scott are still able to infuse their material with incredible feeling, fervor and soul.
Less than a year ago, the Blind Boys collaborated with Harper on the excellent album There Will Be A Light. With the addition of Atom Bomb to their catalogue, it's fair to say that few artists half their age -- no, make that a third -- can keep pace with these guys.