Blind Boys of Alabama and Marc Cohn have ‘Work to Do’ during Park City stop
What: Taj Mahal Quartet, Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama
When: 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 13
Where: Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
Pop singer and songwriter Marc Cohn said performing live with the pioneering gospel group Blind Boys of Alabama is a “joyful noise.”
“I get to be at the center of it every night,” Cohn said. “I’m telling you, as a Jewish kid from Cleveland this is pretty wonderful, and it’s someplace I never expected to be.”
Cohn, known for his Top 20 hit “Walking in Memphis,” and the Blind Boys of Alabama will bring their collaboration to Park City at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. The Taj Mahal Quartet will also perform that night.
“People who come to the show need to know that the Blind Boys and me are on stage together for 85 percent of our part of the evening,” Cohn said. “I think it’s a beautiful show.”
Cohn’s partnership with the Blind Boys started back in 2017 when they began working on the album “Almost Home.”
“Their manager had an idea for the record, and he wanted the songs to be written not only for the Blind Boys, but he wanted the songs to also be about them,” Cohn said. “His idea was to have the guys sing songs that told their own stories and narratives.”
Cohn got to know the group — co-founder Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Joey Williams, Ben Moore and Paul Beasley — through interviews that led to the songwriting.
“They, to say the least, have all been through a lot,” Cohn said. “Not only are they blind, but they are also black men who grew up in the south.”
Cohn also got a hold of a couple of recorded interviews that were conducted with Carter and the late Clarence Fountain, another original Blind Boys of Alabama member.
“They talked about their lives from childhood to the present day, and it was listening to those interviews that made the songs very special and quite easy to write,” Cohn said. “I just had to bring out the poetry in what they were saying, and usually what they were saying was already very poetic.”
Cohn pointed to the Grammy-nominated song “Let My Mother Live” as an example.
“Jimmy was very young, and attending a school for the blind in Alabama when his father passed away,” Cohn said. “After that, losing his mother was his greatest fear. So he would pray every night and say, ‘Let my mother live. Let my mother live’ and that became a song title.”
Cohn and the Blind Boys have toured together on and off for the past couple of years, and released another collaborative album, “Work to Do” on Aug. 9.
The record features two new studio originals, “Work to Do,” and “Talk Back Mic,” and an old gospel tune “Walk in Jerusalem,” according to Cohn.
The idea to record “Walk in Jerusalem” came about during a recording session with Cohn’s longtime producer and songwriting collaborator John Levinthal.
“At some point, someone said, ‘We ought to do an a cappella gospel song,’” Cohn said. “I said that was fine with me, but they had to choose it, because they knew the gospel-music history.”
The group suggested “Walk in Jerusalem,” which was a song they performed decades ago.
“I’m ashamed to admit as a huge fan of gospel music that I didn’t know that song,” Cohn said. “So, they played me an old version recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet, who was the biggest influence on the Blind Boys going back to the 1930s and 1940s.”
Cohn thought the song was perfect, but asked what he could do with it.
“Jimmy, very sweetly said, ‘We’ll give you a verse,’” Cohn said.
The boys taught the songwriter the song in five minutes, and Carter showed Cohn the verse he wanted him to sing.
“We sat in a semi-circle and sang it live and recorded it twice with all of these incredible voices surrounding me,” Cohn said. “I can tell you, that was my favorite 15 minutes in the studio of my whole career. It was a spiritual experience.”
In addition to the three studio tracks, the rest of the songs on “Work to Do” are live, and were recorded at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, during a taping of the PBS series “The Kate.”
The live songs include Cohn’s trademark hit “Walking in Memphis.”
“While ‘Walk In Jerusalem’ is me stepping into their world, the other two songs are them stepping into my world musically,” Cohn said. “While I think it was easier for me to step into their world, because I’ve been listening to gospel music over the years than they’ve been listening to pop and singer-songwriter music, it was all about each of us exploring what the other does.”
Still, those two songs already had gospel-inspired arrangements and lyrics, according to Cohn.
“Walking in Memphis” is about the Reverend Al Green and Muriel Wilkins, who are both gospel singers.
“The song is about me wandering through their world and becoming totally inspired,” Cohn said. “And since the song has a gospel choir at the end, that’s where I had the Blind Boys sing.”
“Baby King,” a song from Cohn’s second album “The Rainy Season,” is also a stand-out live track on “Work to Do.”
“Because I’ve been influenced by gospel, the style was already in me,” Cohn said. “It just needed some way to be magnified, and that’s what the Blind Boys do in those songs.”
Cohn said touring with the Blind Boys of Alabama has taught him many life lessons.
“I’ve learned lot about humility,” he said. “And during the times I get tired, I think to myself that there’s an 87-year-old man who can’t see who is doing just fine, so I need to get over myself. So, I’m learning to write a little more and complain a little less.”
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