Gifted with the opportunity to write press materials for Patty Griffin's upcoming release, Downtown Church, I took the excuse to load a bunch of classic Specialty golden age gospel reissues onto that newfangled iTouch which continues to confuse and confound me at each opportunity. In this way I am able to seek to move the young Baptists who I am meant to manage at the coffeeshop past their praise music and into something more...soulful. And I am able to continue my Sunday morning habit, often broken, of listening to gospel while my wife and daughter sit on hard pews at their downtown church.
Again, to be clear: I am no kind of Christian, no kind of adherent to any kind of organized religion. We can argue about that, if necessary, but my point here is simply that I come to this interested in the music, not in its message. I have always tended to hear the words last while becoming acquainted with an artist and his/her work, so this isn't as odd as it may seem. Or maybe it's odder. No matter.
Come Tuesday the redoubtable Black Hen label out of Vancouver, B.C., will release the second album from a gospel trio dubbed the Sojourners by the bluesman Jim Byrnes, whose name I often conflate with Bill Bryson, and who was once a regular on American TV as a character actor in the series "Wise Guy." It is, inevitably, another Steve Dawson production, leaving me to suspect that Mr. Dawson is the T Bone Burnett of Canada (without the gold records, of course).
The trio, all veterans of the middle class fringes of show business, came together singing backups on a track for Byrnes. They fit together, recorded their debut, Hold On, in 2007. They are all men of mature years who hail originally from the States (Will Sanders from Alexandria, LA, Ron Small from Chicago, Marcus Mosely from Ralls, Texas), and they've sung jazz, R&B, showtunes, and whatever else came along.
Unlike the post-WWII vocal groups with which I am presently enamored, the Sojourners record with instrumental backing. (And they aren't the only ensemble by this name, inevitably, nor are they associated with the activist Christian magazine by the same name, though it's reputedly a fine magazine that I've only glanced at in passing.). Dawson on guitars, Mike Kalanj on organ, Keith Lowe on bass, Geoff Hicks on drums, augmented as needed.
Many years ago, I was quite taken -- led into knowing by the long-gone KZAM radio station -- with another Canadian vocal group, the Nylons, who had a showy and sometimes flamboyant take on doo-wop. It's not entirely fair, but I'm tempted to compare the Sojourners to the Nylons, for both have a smooth, polished take on an old musical tradition that was once rougher and more immediate. I liked the Nylons more when I hadn't heard their antecedents, though I still like their first album well enough. (If I could only figure out how to get at the vinyl without losing half a day cleaning the path.)
The Sojourners eponymous second album is much like their debut. This time the nod to classic gospel is Dorothy Love Coates' "Strange Man," which happens also to be a song Patty Griffin chose for her new album. Funny how that sorts out; Coates wrote tons of songs, and yet this one surfaces twice in a couple of months. (Last album their nod was to "Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb," a Pilgrim Travelers standard). This time their nod to the secular immediate past is Los Lobos' "The Neighborhood." Last album it was Percy Mayfield's "People Get Ready," which isn't so far a jump. Of course.
Somewhat to my surprise, the Sojourners suffer by comparison to Griffin's take on "Strange Man," which swings and soars and manages to sound ragged and new. The Sojourners seem stiff and perfunctory on this one, too pretty and polished. On their other hand, "The Neighborhood" is a splendid choice, though one might wish the groove had a little more groove. The vocals, though, they soar along nicely, even if they never disappear into the sun.
Which is why I keep coming back to the Nylons, in my memory. It's unfair to expect gospel to sound today as it sounded fifty years or more ago. But one of the reasons I haven't yet followed the promotional link to download the new Johnny Cash album is that I can't believe his take on "Ain't No Grave" will supplant Russ Taff's version (look it up on YouTube), nor even the Crooked Still recording, which is how I stumbled on Taff -- a remarkable singer working out of my sight in the contemporary Christian/Gaither orbit. Both of them await further attention on the infernal device, but nevermind.
The Sojourners, they sing well together. They have elegant, nicely dressed vocals, only one of which (I've no idea which) has any kind of dust left to its edges. Their songs are well-chosen. Even I am familiar with "Nobody Can Turn Me Around," but "It's Hard To Stumble (When You're on Your Knees)" is plain and brilliant, with particularly tasty accompaniment. If "When I Die" sounds like too much Philly Soul for me (and any Philly Soul is to much for me; sorry), well, the moment passes soon enough.
Cavails aside, they're worth hearing, these Sojourners. Worth seeing, I suspect, and I suspect they may be more compelling onstage, for in the studio their songs hover just above the ground, and never altogether take wing. And I continue to wonder if just maybe there's a classic gospel revival fomenting out there. We'll see. And I'll try to keep listening.