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Alligator (ALCD4968)

Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Cowboy Junkies, Blind Boys Of Alabama, Sinead O'Connor, Luther Dickinson & The Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, Maria McKee, Rickie Lee Jones

Tribute albums are often problematic affairs, especially for committed fans of the artist being honoured. If you rate and revere particular recordings, how likely is it that new versions of favourite songs delivered by acts that you may have little or no affinity with will stand comparison to that of a musical hero?  And when that hero is Blind Willie Johnson, an evangelical gospel street singer whose handful of records from the late 1920s and early 1930s presented a singularly unique singing style and stunning guitar technique (especially on slide) , this difficulty is only compounded.

So, approaching this album with a good deal of trepidation, I was more than a little relieved and pleasantly surprised to find that it substantially delivers on the twin objectives of any tribute album; firstly, to do justice to the artist being celebrated and, secondly, to produce an enjoyable and worthwhile album in its own right.  Co-ordinated and produced by Jeffrey Gaskill, compiler of Gotta Serve Somebody - The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan, this labour of love took a while to pull together but has got there in the end due to his own tenacity and the support and commitment of others, not least Alligator Records and, most notably, the artists that feature here.

Despite only ever being a minor figure in commercial terms, the extent of Blind Willie's continued artistic influence can be seen in the fact that a number of the eleven tracks included here come from artists far removed from the blues and gospel genres that he has typically been most associated with. Thankfully, these artists present their versions of Johnson songs in  their own style and format rather than attempting a potentially disastrous and embarrassing facsimile of his unique delivery style. The Cowboy Junkies may have sampled some of Blind Willie's recorded vocals for incorporation of their version of Jesus Is Coming Soon but this is essentially a rather enjoyable and atmospheric rock track, similar in effect to the Alabama 3's theme tune to The Sopranos TV series. Lucinda Williams takes Nobody's Fault But Mine and God Don't Never Change and re-builds these into the gothic Americana styled-music that she always does so well. And, the two Tom Waits contributions, John The Revelator and The Soul Of A Man, are completely re-tooled to fit into his own madcap musical approach - very good news for such a Waits-nut such as yours truly.

For those looking for a degree of faithfulness to Blind Willie's original versions, Maria McKee's spirited Let Your Light Shine On Me is a blast, as is Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi's Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning, delivering strong vocals and scintillating slide guitar (evidencing Johnson's powerful influence on Fred McDowell).

While old-school fans of Blind Willie may have some difficulty embracing this album, to me it succeeds on almost every level. And if it leads to an upsurge in interest in, and appreciation of, the great man's recordings, then that is all to the good, isn't it?

Review Date: Febraury 2016

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