Ron Small, Marcus Mosely and Will Sanders—hailing respectively from Chicago, IL; Ralls, Texas; and Alexandria, Louisiana—have made Vancouver their home base in recent years, and it is from there that they are making such a glorious noise in the name of their Lord. Although they have worked in and around the gospel world for a half-century (Small even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1958, when his gospel group, The Fabulous Pearls, made the bill), the trio came together at the behest of Canadian music icon Jim Byrnes, who hired them to provide some gospel oomph to his blues on his 2006 album, House of Refuge. Their sound was so captivating and natural that Byrnes not only gave them their group name but helped enlist his producer, Steve Dawson, to steer the newly formed trio’s debut album, 2007’s Hold On. Three years later comes a second Sojourners album, harder edged than Hold On—thanks mostly to Dawson’s stinging, rock- and blues-based guitar work and the solid, pulsating rhythm section of Geoff Hicks (drums) and Keith Lowe (bass)—but still leaning on a traditional gospel framework in style and repertoire. With Mike Kalanj sitting in on B-3 and Wurlitzer on several cuts, and Dawson adding atmospheric touches via the variety of sonics available to him on six- and 12-strings, slide guitar, Wiessenborn, mandotar, National and pedal steel guitars, the Sojourners advance an invigorating sound: everything from classic soul to brittle rock ‘n’ roll to pure gospel to blues to country, as they stay in a classic gospel group harmony groove. It’s not like anything you’re likely to encounter on the modern gospel circuit, or, for that matter, in any other gospel era. Makes you wish Elvis Presley were still with us, because he, a dominant gospel singer if ever there was one, would surely be energized by the Sojourners’ dynamic approach—and you can bet he would dig the way Ron Small opens his heart so fully and unabashedly in petitioning the Lord on a spare, soulfully reverent version of one of Elvis’s own gospel landmarks, Doris Akers’s “Lead Me Guide Me,” this one enhanced atmospherically by Dawson’s eerie tremelo guitar ruminations and further blessed by the Sojourners sending up a smooth gospel harmony sound a la the Stamps Quartet that served Elvis so well on his version. Even Mahalia Jackson, staunch traditionalist though she was, would likely welcome the Sojourners’ inventive approach to the Word—whatever it takes to get the message across, at least within reason.
What’s within reason? Try the deep groove of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” that Rev. Gary Davis classic. Over a bruising, shambling rhythm, Mosely, Smalls and Sanders raise their voices in smooth, keening harmonies, as Dawson sends up his own complementary howl via Hawaiian lap steel and distortion-heavy electric guitar, while Kalanj maintains a steady, chording wail on the B-3. Going out on a high note, the trio speaks exuberantly of salvation in an album closing rendition of “By and By,” which is some kind of fusion of gospel and jug band blues, with Kalanz’s rich organ backdrop, over which Dawson crafts bright, buoyant Weissenberg riffs before Jesse Zubot jumps in with a feisty, serpentine mandolin workout. These rootsy touches are impressive enough, but there’s nothing quite like the album opening “Nobody Can Turn Me Around,” an overt homage to the classic, soaring Impressions sound (even though the song is a Mighty Clouds of Joy monument), right down to the rich, familiar, high-pitched harmony blend, with Dawson adding some edge to the electric guitar support that might be right in the pocket with what one Curtis Mayfield would fashion for this number. (Note: on their debut, the Sojourners covered “People Get Ready,” so there’s precedent at work here.) Curtis would almost certainly nod approval of the Sojourners venturing beyond gospel, too, to incorporate the socially conscious message railing against a deteriorating culture and pleading for divine intervention, as they do in Los Lobos’ “The Neighborhood,” here delivered with a pronounced stomp and slow boiling intensity along with some angry, sputtering electric guitar protestations from Dawson. Not the least of the treats here is an infectious, classic soul romp through Motherlode’s aspirational, lovestruck strivings served up in musical form in the one-hit wonder group’s 1969 hit, “When I Die,” in a treatment that hews closely to the original’s lush, soaring arrangement. (Trivia buffs take note: “When I Die” entered the charts on 8-9-69, the day of the Manson Family murders.)