|The essential divide between blues and gospel music goes back to the origins
of both, and stories of artists forbidden to sing 'the devil's music' by stern and unyielding forbears are almost
a cliché in blues lore. Yet the two genres really are cut from the same cloth. And just as one doesn't have
to have grown up pickin' cotton under the blazing Mississippi sun to appreciate the stark beauty of the blues,
neither is it necessary to be a believer to be moved by the spirit of great gospel music. Saint and sinner alike
will take equal pleasure in being 'Saved' by the NorthernBlues Gospel Allstars, regardless of religious convictions.
The first venture into these particular waters by the still-young NorthernBlues label, "Saved!" brings together four magnificent voices in the persons of Danny Brooks, Hiram Joseph, Amoy Levy, and John Lee, all originally from Canada (though Mr. Lee is now based in California). They're backed by a stellar band that includes Mr. Brooks' guitar on selected tracks, with co-producer Michael Fonfara's B3 adding a great deal of sanctified soul to proceedings. The format is revue-style, with an a capella opener led by Mr. Joseph and buoyed by the NorthernBlues Allstar Gospel Chorus; from there each take turns on lead vocals, in most cases again supported by the chorus (though there are a few solo excursions as well). Things come full circle with an apparently impromptu and utterly spine-tingling choral take on "We Shall Overcome."
Songs include the familiar - Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," the traditional "Down By The Riverside" - with tunes written specifically for this project, including three from Mr. Brooks and one by Mr. Finley. (Old timers may remember him from 'way back as one half of Jon & Lee & The Checkmates). The title song, here given a rousing, rafter-shaking treatment, was co-written by bassist Tim Drummond and Bob Dylan.
As befits music of this nature - or more to the point, voices of this calibre - instrumental accompaniment is relegated largely to a supporting role, with relatively few solos; those present are kept short and to-the-point. Again, it's the voices that matter here, and all participants more than rise to the occasion with righteous fervour and utmost conviction. Indeed, with so much of what passes for blues these days a pale and pallid imitation devoid of passion, this outing might well serve as a reminder of what it's supposed to sound like.
With most recordings the selection of a highlight or two is a relatively simple proposition; here it's impossible as absolutely everything is a highlight, with nary a misstep to be found. Really, it's that good; the material's irresistible, production impeccable, and the singing nothing short of heavenly.
"Saved!" is yet another feather in the cap for NorthernBlues, and further proof of label head Fred Litwin's unerring taste and unwavering vision.