Founded in 1939 and turned into a professional group six years later, it took more than fifty years for these gospel legends to record a Christmas album. Released in 2003, the album was third in a string of four Grammy-winning albums in four years, including Spirit of the Century, Higher Ground and There Will Be a Light. The album includes guests leading every track but the first and last, ranging from soul singer Solomon Burke, singer-songwriters Tom Waits and Shelby Lynne, to jazz vocalist Les McCann and funkmaster George Clinton. The wide range of guests lends the album a lot of variety, though in a few spots, such as Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” it mostly obscures title group.
There’s no losing sight of the group as they provide Aaron Neville an intricate a cappella backing for “Joy to the World,” provide harmony backing to Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and add lively interplay to Mavis Staples’ “Born in Bethlehem.” One might lament how the cavalcade of guest stars cuts into the Blind Boys’ opportunities to sing lead, but the selection of guests and their interaction with the group and house band (John Medeski on keyboards, Duke Robillard on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and Michael Jerome on drums) yields some nice moments. If you’re expecting a Blind Boys gospel Christmas album, you’ll be disappointed, but if you take this album as part of the group’s Grammy era artistic expansion, there’s much to like.
Omnivore’s 2016 reissue retains the a cappella rendition of “My Lord What a Morning” that was recorded for the 2004 CD reissue, and adds a pair of live tracks drawn from a contemporaneous holiday concert at New York’s Beacon Theater. The latter includes the title track and a closing rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung (as it was on Higher Ground) to the melody of “House of the Rising Sun.” The 12-page booklet includes photos and musicians’ credits, and Davin Seay’s liner notes add career context for the album and anecdotes about how the group, their guests and producers worked together in the studio. The album’s soulful productions and gospel backings will complement any holiday gathering and raise everyone’s spirits! [©2016 Hyperbolium]