The Blind Boys' first record for Real World, last year's Spirit Of The Century, was an instant classic. This follow-up again matches the quintet with gospel standards and quasi-spiritual numbers from more secular artists (Aretha Franklin's "Spirit In The Dark", Prince's "The Cross", and the Stevie Wonder-penned title track). Their sometimes frenzied, sometimes harrowing harmonies are again backed by a blues-based band, this time led by young sacred steel master Robert Randolph. The strategy remains essentially the same, but the results, while often inspired, are less stunning.
The opener, Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready", balances precise harmonies and rhythmic drive and features Ben Harper on falsetto lead vocal and guitar. Even better is the stately take on Harper's "I Shall Not Walk Alone"; best of all is the elegiac reading of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross".
Randolph and his band certainly rock (they tear through the title track like avenging angels), but they are prone to jamming, which inevitably dissipates the energy of the singing and the songs. If the intention was to pilot the Blind Boys toward the radar of the funk/jam-band crowd, Higher Ground may be a success, but it's at the expense of the singers, who too often follow the band's lead rather than the other way around.