There's a strange and inescapable magic at play on I'll Find a Way, the newest LP produced by The Blind Boys of Alabama. The group formed in 1939 out of glee performances at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. Though membership has shifted, most of the lineup is still blind, and all of them are black. They still sing traditionally rooted gospel buoyed by raw and resplendent harmonies. Their fiery presence is fueled by faith.
"I think that we were called to do this work by God. I really do," explains Jimmy Carter. At 81, he's the leader and most senior Blind Boy, though he was not a founding member. "Our message is a gospel message. We like to tell the world about Jesus. There are a lot of people who don't even believe in that, but that's OK with us. We're still going to sing to them."
On songs like "I Am Not Waiting Anymore," their fervor meets its foil. The tune was written by Field Report, a tranquil modern folk outfit from Milwaukee, and while the new arrangement sways with confident brass blasts and a militaristic beat, the spiritually confused narrative remains. Sam Amidon, a folksinger whose dry but resonant drawl was made for such road-weary anxiety, takes the lead. He sounds defeated but determined: "I have read between the lines," he moans. "I have been wrong every time." But when he hits the refrain, the Blind Boys enter full-force, cushioning his crushing doubts with unwavering confidence. It's a clash of contrasting moods, and it is beautiful.
After more than 70 years, the Blind Boys are still striving to reach new ears. To that end, they teamed with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, who produced the new record and handpicked the house band and vocal collaborators. With his Grammy-winning primary pursuit, he spins rustic folk into ambient epics. He brings a similarly hypnotic touch to I'll Find a Way, recruiting members of My Brightest Diamond, tUnE-yArDs, Megafaun and others to fill out a tasteful but invigorating update of the Blind Boys' cherished tradition. It will surely attract a younger crowd — one that might not know about the albums Blind Boys have made, the shows they've played or the five Grammys they've won along the way. Carter couldn't be more excited.
"We want to be able to sing to all types of people," Carter says. "We want to get people involved in our music that have never heard about the Blind Boys."
I'll Find a Way doesn't dilute the group's religious convictions to find a secular appeal. Vernon tapped Phil Cook, who plays with the far-flung folk experimenters in Megafaun, as his band director, and together they created arrangements that are grounded in traditional Southern sounds. Reggie Pace and Mike Lewis, two frequent Bon Iver contributors, provide incandescent horn charts, and Cook contributes licks — by way of keys and guitar — that swagger and stomp with bluesy confidence. Vernon blends these elements with an impressionistic hand, allowing them to merge into a warm and welcoming swell behind the Blind Boys' urgent performances.
"They just have experienced so much life from such an incredible angle," Cook gushes. "It just was so obvious every single time I was singing with them and just sitting with them. I was all about it."
Some of the album's highlights are sincere and single-minded, like the jubilant rendition of "God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud." Others prove the Blind Boys' power through juxtaposition. On "I've Been Searching," Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs inserts her uniquely twisting croon, going for broke with a feral mutation of Motown soul that's deftly diffused by the Blind Boys' crisp doo-wop backing. No matter the circumstances, these veterans hold their own.
"The best thing I can say about that is that it was an act of God," Carter says. As he speaks, his TV is tuned to the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. He was around back then, when this kind of cross-generational, cross-racial collaboration wasn't possible. He's grateful for the opportunity. "We hadn't heard of [Vernon]. We knew nothing about this man, and all of the sudden, he pops up. That had to be an act of God."