On Go Tell It on the Mountain, their first Christmas album, the Blind Boys share lead vocals with a variety of guest stars, from Solomon Burke to Chrissie Hynde. The group's amazing vocal harmonies basically absorb whatever ingredients are added to them; it's just about impossible to make these singers into background vocalists. Several classic African American singers Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples add counterpoints that build on the original textures of the Blind Boys' music.
These various guest stars won't be present at the Ark. What will be retained are the arrangements the Blind Boys made of classic Christmas carols, and of contemporary Christmas pieces by the likes of Harry Connick Jr., to accommodate the modern vocalists. Those arrangements draw on much of the music soul, rock, jazz, and more that has come along since the Five Blind Boys' 1950s heyday. Chrissie Hynde and the others added little, really, except a dash of familiar flavor. The miracle of the present-day Blind Boys of Alabama is that by hearing them, you can get in touch with something that comes from a very old place, a tradition that has grown to encompass the new.
[Originally published in November, 2003.]