Grammy Winners Marc Cohn and Blind Boys of Alabama Collaborate on Stunning ‘Work to Do’ (ALBUM REVIEW))

Marc Cohn and Blind Boys of Alabama have been on tour now for almost year, performing material from this collaborative album, Work to Do. It’s a well-conceived, well-executed live show that gives both major artists a fair share of the spotlight, and, more importantly, delivers soul-stirring music. Seven of the ten selections on this album are culled from live performance while three are studio tracks (two originals and the opening standard “Walk in Jerusalem.”) The live tracks are all taken from a show at the Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT during a taping of the PBS series, The Kate.

Although Cohn had aspired to work with The Blind Boys of Alabama for some time, the genesis for the project, produced by another Grammy winner, John Leventhal, was Cohn’s songwriting work with Leventhal on William Bell’s Stax album, This Is Where I Live. Bell shared management with the gospel group and sent Cohn and Leventhal video interviews tapes of Jimmy Carter and co-founder Clarence Fountain. The concept for their next album was to write songs culled from those interviews and so Cohn jumped right in. The resulting album, 2017’s Almost Home, with three Cohn-Leventhal co-writes, had the Grammy-nominated composition “Let My Mother Live.” That launched a string of collaborative shows between Cohn and the Blind Boys in 2018. Interestingly, an appearance by 88-year-old Clarence Fountain at one of these shows last summer proved to be his last performance prior to his death.

Cohn, of course, established himself with his self-titled platinum-selling 1991 album that had his mega-hit “Walking in Memphis,” “Ghost Train” and “Silver Thunderbird;” all of which are here with Blind Boys harmonies. The Blind Boys – founding member Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Joey Williams, Ben Moore and Paul Beasley – have earned five Grammys and a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. Leventhal is also a five-time Grammy winner. 

The additional older Cohn tunes are “Baby King” from 1993’s The Rainy Season, “One Safe Place” from 2005’s Marc Cohn Live and the emotive “Listening to Levon” from Join the Parade in 2017. The new ones are Cohn and Leventhal’s “Talk Back Mic” and Cohn’s “Work to Do,” as well as a new rendition of the Golden Gate Quartet classic “Walk in Jerusalem” (a live staple of the Blind Boys’ repertoire early in their career.

The Blind Boys also perform their signature version of “Amazing Grace.” The rearrangement of the hymn – now sung to “House of the Rising Sun” – was brought to the group by John Chelew, producer of their 2001 crossover hit album Spirit of the Century. Carter recalls, “When he brought that arrangement to us, we rejected it – we didn’t want it! We thought it was almost sacrilegious. But he said, ‘Do this for me – let’s record it, and if you don’t like it, we won’t use it.’ But we liked it, and that was the song that helped bring the Blind Boys their first Grammy.”

The Blind Boys don’t just cover any song. They are very particular.  Cohn notes: “They won’t sing many songs in the popular music canon. They’re not comfortable singing straight-up love songs. There has to be some sort of spiritual element to a song for them to feel good about singing it. Luckily, I’ve written a handful of songs that fit the bill for them. It’s been an honor listening to them and singing with them every night. I’ve never been as happy on stage as I am when I’m singing with these great gentlemen of gospel.”

The album is a great representation of their live show. After all, seven of the ten tunes are culled from live performance. Cohn, like most artists, sounds even better with the glorious backing harmonies from these gospel greats. They add texture and emotion to his already strong songs. 

Photo by Nicholas Sonsini

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