Like all great music, like all great art, the most rapturous spiritual songs are the ones that don’t call attention to themselves. They don’t waste time with the kind of petty theatrics that promote their cause like some cheap, disposable commodity. They simply work within the faith they attest to as opposed to shoving their beliefs down unsuspecting throats.
Last night’s taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at the Lyric Theatre contained several exemplary examples of true, unassuming spiritual music. But the most riveting tune was also the least known and least conspicuous. It wasn’t a traditional work, but a modern meditation titled I Am Not Waiting Anymore by Chris Porterfield of the wonderful indie band Field Report. Porterfield wasn’t there to perform it. Instead the song was offered as a collaboration that brought together the evening’s two featured acts – the veteran gospel vocal troupe Blind Boys of Alabama and former Live frontman Ed Kowalczyk.
I Am Not Waiting Anymore is one of the highlights from the Blind Boys’ new Justin Vernon-produced I’ll Find a Way, the most wintry and quietly subversive album the group has released during its remarkable Grammy winning renaissance. Sam Amidon sang it with the Blind Boys on the record. But Kowalczyk’s lead proved a subtle and studied compliment to the ambient guitar chiming of Blind Boys guitarist Joey Williams. While visibly moved by the song, Kowalczyk never overplayed his emotive hand. It was just a brilliant performance moment all around.
The rest of the Blind Boys’ set played more to the traditional side of I’ll Find a Way, from the lean celebratory charge of God Put a Rainbow in the Cloud (with an arrangement based around Ralph Stanley’s version of the tune) to the tent revival jubilation of I Shall Not Be Moved, which let loose the ageless vocal might of Jimmy Carter, the lone holdout from when the original Blind Boys began singing as children over 70 years ago.
Kowalczyk’s set was a surprise only because it is still hard to place him outside the arena rock ranks of Live, one of the ‘90s more bankable post-grunge acts. But his makeover as a solo acoustic artist seemed quite natural, especially within songs from his new solo album The Flood and the Mercy (in particular, Bottle of Anything and Seven) that played to the cooler, bottom range of his voice. Live die-hards were not forgotten, though. Kowalczyk offered acoustic versions of two major radio hits from the band’s 1994 signature album, Throwing Copper (I Alone and Lightning Crashes) with their angst, unrest and drama intact.
The evening’s other highlight also went to the Blind Boys which dedicated a cover of the Velvet Underground’s atypically contemplative Jesus to Lou Reed. The iconic rock stylist, who died late last month, recorded the song with the group in 2009. Last night, the combination of a rugged percussive beat, deep Hammond organ orchestration and the Blind Boys sage-like singing produced a spiritual glow that would have made even a champion street curmudgeon like Reed beam.