Album Of The Week

October 28, 2019
 

The Cleansing Moment(s)

Marc Cohn and Blind Boys of Alabama: Salvation’s ahead…

 

By David McGee

WORK TO DO

Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama

BMG

 

In a real sense, Work to Do is a supergroup session. The dramatis personae includes multi-Grammy winner Marc Cohn, one of the finest singer-songwriters of his generation, best known for his 1991 classic, “Walking in Memphis”; gospel giants Blind Boys of Alabama; and ace producer-multi-instrumentalist-songwriter John Leventhal, whom it is imperative we regard as one of the finest producers of our time.

‘Walking to Jerusalem,’ Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama, the lead track from Work to Do, live at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, Wilkes-Barre, PA

‘Listening to Levon,’ Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama, from Work to Do

For Cohn, Work to Do re-teams him with artists he has worked with quite successfully in the recent past. A longtime friend of Leventhal and Leventhal’s wife, Rosanne Cash, Cohn played on and wrote half the songs on the Leventhal-produced, 2017 Grammy winning William Bell album, This is Where I Live, which, not coincidentally, spiritually returned Cohn to the Memphis sound that spoke so profoundly to him in his formative years. 2017 also found him collaborating with Leventhal on three songs—including the Grammy-nominated “Let My Mother Live”—for the Leventhal-produced Blind Boys album, Almost Home. Thereafter, Cohn and the Blind Boys played more than a year of live dates together before convening in the studio to cut the new tracks included here. Comprised of seven live and three studio numbers, Work to Do ought to remind listeners that Marc Cohn, great as “Walking in Memphis” is, is much more than a one-hit wonder. The album includes a couple of other tracks familiar to long-time Cohn fans, namely “Silver Thunderbird” and “Ghost Train,” both from his celebrated debut album, as well as “Baby King,” a gem from his underrated sophomore album, 1993’s The Rainy Season (an incisive dissection of love and relationships, arguably, still, his most powerful album-length testimony); the haunting “One Safe Place” (from his 2005 live album); and from 2007’s Join the Parade, “Listening to Levon,” a gospel-tinged tribute to the transportive power of another master’s voice, wrapped around an apologia to a forlorn paramour for being unsettlingly distracted by a certain rustic timbre (haven’t we all been there?). Your faithful friend and narrator dares his dear readers not to cue up “Rag Mama Rag” or “Ophelia” after hearing Cohn’s soulful hallelujahs to fallen titan Helm.

‘Amazing Grace,’ lead vocal by Jimmy Carter, from Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama’s Work to Do

‘One Safe Place,’ Marc Cohn & Blind Boys of Alabama, from Work to Do

Understandably, the gospel spirit is strong here, starting with the Blind Boys leading things off with an a cappella, foot-stomping rendition of the traditional paean to salvation, “Walking to Jerusalem.”  Salvation becomes an underpinning theme then, manifesting itself in the agonized self-reflections of Cohn’s gospel-infused workout, “Still Have Work to Do,” wherein he wonders why he’s been spared the fates of departed friends (and himself, possibly, given his survival after being shot in the head during an attempted carjacking in 2005), and in the metaphorical showers about which the Blind Boys chant ominously behind Cohn’s soulful testimony, “Sky broke up/the rain came down/washing away, washing away/everything on the ground.” It’s even there in the search for grace—in Graceland, no less–described in a rousing live version of “Walking in Memphis.” Original Blind Boy Jimmy Carter leads the way on a rumbling, soul-shaking rendition of “Amazing Grace,” reimagined to the melody of “The House of the Rising Sun,” which has the effect of emphasizing how dark the road to salvation can be for wretched souls. Come the closing hymn-like treatment of “One Safe Place,” though, Cohn and the Blind Boys reach the plateau sought at the outset in “Walking to Jerusalem.” And at that point, we are washed clean. World without end, amen.