The collaboration between Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama flows so soulfully and so naturally that it’s a wonder that they haven’t put out an album before this one.
John Leventhal produced this little gem of a record that features three studio tracks — the originals “Work to Do” and “Talk Back Mic,” as well as the gospel standard “Walk in Jerusalem” — and seven live performances that were recorded at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Cohn’s songwriting and his raw, emotionally stirring vocals take center stage on most of these songs, but the soaring harmony vocals of the Blind Boys transform the music and lift it to another level. The Blind Boys take the spotlight on their by-now-well-known version of “Amazing Grace,” sung to the tune of the “House of the Rising Sun.”
As you’d expect, Cohn offers a version of his hit “Walking in Memphis,” but backed by the Blind Boys the song hits the sweet and poignant spot of soulful nostalgia for the magic of place. This version evokes — thanks to the strains of the B3 and the Blind Boys’ harmonies — the transcendence for which the singer longs. The album opens with the foot-stomping and hand-clapping “Walk in Jerusalem,” sung in Southern gospel style; the strum of a guitar announces the key and the rest of song is sung a cappella, accompanied by hand claps and call and response between lead singer and chorus. It’s an inspiring choice for an opener.
The swampy “Talk Back Mic” features Leventhal’s crunchy guitar snaking through a song that likens God to a studio engineer. “Still Have Work to Do” opens sparely with Cohn and piano on the first verse before blossoming into an uplifting gospel anthem that digs deep into themes of loss and love and hope; it’s the highlight of the album. Cohn’s “Listening to Levon” floats along a soulful B3 and captures gracefully Cohn’s love for Levon Helm.
Every song on Work to Do delivers a soulful groove of gospel and gospel-inflected pop, and we can only hope that we’ll be hearing more music from Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama.