Saturday, February 20, 2016


I guess I always figured these tribute discs popped up after some boardroom meeting, where execs figure out what would sell and green-light possible projects. And probably some do. But in this case, it's a labour of love. Compiler/producer Jeffery Gaskill found out about Blind Willie Johnson after doing a similar tribute to the gospel music of Bob Dylan back in 2002. Since then, he's been on a quest.

Everything was lined up a decade ago, but the music industry's problems scotched the production. But working with fellow obsessed fans, Gaskill put together a Kickstarter campaign, got the artists back on board, and finally got the thing released, so big kudos to him. And the best news is, it's a tremendous set.

Johnson was not a blues guy like so many others of that time, the ones we now revere. He was a gospel player, in churches and on the street, He predates most of the famous ones, Robert Johnson and the rest by a few years, his recordings happening around 1930. But this wasn't the joyous stuff. Johnson wrote or played the deep, dark songs, not so much the fear of God, but more the great mysteries.

There's The Soul of a Man, the search for what that could be ("Nothing' but a burning light"). The song John the Revelator might be better known by Son House, but Johnson gave it even more gravitas, believing full well in those terrifying stories in Revelations. A song that almost every rock fan knows by Eric Clapton as Motherless Children is actually Johnson's, called Mother's Children.

Johnson was gravel-voiced and ground down by poverty and race, and knew the streets well, so Tom Waits is a perfect choice, doing two numbers here. He's part of an A-list roots lineup, that also features Lucinda Williams doing a couple, They are joined by Cowboy Junkies doing a great collage sound on Jesus Is Coming Soon, sampling Johnson's very own vocal. Blind Boys of Alabama do great justice to Mother's Children, and Sinead O'Connor is a big surprise on Trouble Will Soon Be Over. Maria McKee, Luther Dickinson (with fifes!), Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, everybody does excellent work here, except for a letdown from Rickie Lee Jones at the end. It's fantastic to know that a labour of love is still achievable.

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