Dealing with the Lord

Playing gospel behind enemy lines.

THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA

Cinerama, 770-2702, $22 8 p.m. Mon., Jan. 21

CLARENCE FOUNTAIN remembers well the day he made that deal with the devil—wait, wrong music trope. Let's try again.

Clarence Fountain remembers well the day, lo those many years ago, when he made that deal with God.

"I made the Lord a promise," says the 71-year-old leader of the Blind Boys of Alabama, the gospel group he's led since 1939. "Help us to get really in sync with the music and help us to get worldwide, and I'd just stay in the path of righteousness and hold onto his hand. And he gon' lead me the rest of the way."

That young man's promise hardened long ago into a foundation, one that the ungodly events of Sept. 11 couldn't even fissure. Fountain has an answer for the folks who want to know where God was that clear morning over New York and Washington.

"I got criticized for this, but I said that God was in the same place he was before Sept. 11," he said. "But he allows this to happen because we as a country have turned our faces in another direction. We was too prosperous and too whatever you want to call it to thank God for the things he had done for us."

The Blind Boys, who perform in Olympia Jan. 18 and Bremerton the day after before stopping in Seattle, had in 2001one of the most successful years in their six-decade career. Their album, Spirit of the Century, released on Peter Gabriel's Real World label, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album. And the disc brought critical praise from all quarters.

Not that the group hasn't survived just fine since they were formed as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers at the Talladega Institute for the Deaf and Blind. (They later changed their name to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama as a direct challenge to their then more successful rivals the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi). In the late 1980s, the group began starring in the Obie Award- winning musical The Gospel at Colonus, and in 1994 they received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

One reason the group—which now includes Jimmy Carter, George Scott, and Joey Williams in addition to Fountain—is reaching so many new ears with Spirit of the Century was the decision to record songs by the likes of Tom Waits and Ben Harper along with the traditional gospel numbers. Covering tracks by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, which the Blind Boys have also done, is one thing. But cutting one by rock's best-known devils, the Rolling Stones (even if that song is "Just Wanna See His Face"), is another entirely, particularly when you're doing it not with the local choir but with blues musicians such as harp-blower Charlie Musselwhite.

For all that rock 'n' roll company, Fountain remains as conservative as you might expect of a 71-year-old who attends Methodist services in Baton Rouge. The U.S., he says, stuffed God in the backseat when the country took prayer out of schools. But the singer describes himself less as conservative than steadfast in his heavenly devotion.

"Well," he says— beginning this sentence as all others with a gravelly exhale that comes out more like "Weh"—"it doesn't matter what we think. . . . If you're a Democrat or a Republican or whatever, he said, 'I put up kings and I'll take 'em down.' So I'm just gonna believe in God. I don't have to be conservative, I don't have to be nothin'."

Blues and gospel walk hand in hand, Fountain says. Which explains the group's willingness to indulge producer John Chelew when he suggested they cut "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." Like Wilco's eerie interpretation of Woody Guthrie's "Blood of the Lamb," this song casts salvation in mysterious, even scary, terms.

Fountain likes traveling behind enemy lines, if you will, in those communities where sinning's as common as sunshine. It's like the Butthole Surfers wanting to get their wigged-out art albums into white-bread Wal-Mart. Of course, the more appropriate comparison is Jesus hanging with the prostitutes and tax collectors. The opportunity to preach in arenas to those who aren't yet converted is one reason the band went on tour with Tom Petty a few years back.

The Blind Boys' upcoming album may even sound a bit like Petty, Fountain says.

"Weh, what they want us to do is go back into the '60s and '70s and cut some tunes, but they want 'em cut in the rock 'n' roll flavor. Now, I don't disagree with them—yet. But I gotta see how it's gonna come out."

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