Baker, 59, leavens his sketches of beautiful blue-collar losers, each too unflinchingly individualized for a stereotype, with a residue of old-time religion. Old-time religious music figures as well, from the “Sweet Hour of Prayer” fragment that Baker turns over to two women and a pianist to the “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”–based benediction “Go in Peace.” And those are just two of the high points. Love, loss, grace, gratitude—no other singer-songwriter is currently playing for higher stakes.
It’s as admirable that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and his alt-rock guest vocalists help this legendary gospel group limp along as it is that the group refuses to quit. But the senescence is finally too obvious to ignore. The 84-year-old Clarence Fountain is hardly heard, the other original Blind Boy Jimmy Carter a footnote, and the new squeaky lead tenor of Paul Beasley a weak Plan C. By all means buy everything by Fountain and the gang up to 2009. This one’s one too many.
Even in the songs with words, the radical leftism of this techno superstar remains submerged beneath beautifully somber chord progressions that electronica fans will file under “chill out.” What surfaces, even if only a smidgen and indirectly at that, is Moby’s belief in the divinity of Christ. “I saw Jesus come down, / dressed like a soldier,” sings guest vocalist Mark Lanegan. Combined with Moby’s second consecutive Flannery O’Connor–inspired instrumental (“Everything That Rises”) in as many consecutive albums, it’s enough to inspire hope if not necessarily faith or charity.
In 2007 the conservative rootsmeister Skaggs and the liberal popmeister Hornsby put their ideological differences aside, made an album, and toured to prove that music, or at least bluegrass, is the universal language. Judging from this document, the tour actually superseded the record. First, the banter enhances rather than distracts. Second, Skaggs sings a jam-band-length version of Hornsby’s wages-of-adultery tale “White Wheeled Limousine.” Third, Skaggs sings a jam-band-length version of Hornsby’s greatest liberal-pop hit, “The Way It Is.” Compassionate conservatism lives!
The Last Waltz, its post-concert overdubs notwithstanding, will probably always stand as The Band’s ultimate live testament. But the remixing TLC that lead Bandsman Robbie Robertson has finally gotten to show the un-retouched performances on Live at the Academy Of Music 1971: The Rock of Ages Concerts (Capitol) will run a close second. Unlike The Last Waltz, which captured The Band’s final original-configuration gig, the only end that was near at the time of these late-December shows was that of 1971.
And, except for the apparent drunkenness of Bob Dylan, who performs four encores (and forgets the words of “Like a Rolling Stone”), nothing commonly associated with New Year’s Eve debauchery mars this otherwise masterly collection of rock ’n’ roll seminalia. The belief that the road might go on forever touches almost every song with a timelessness entirely appropriate to a combo whose greatest tune made the pacifist Joan Baez into a Confederate Civil War sympathizer.