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Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

08/14/2019

Marc Cohn and Blind Boys of Alabama at the Oregon Zoo Friday evening

By SCOTT CUNNINGHAM // Delightful new album, "Work to Do", out now.

From the beginning of his career, Marc Cohn's music has always contained a spiritual element, oftentimes bordering on gospel. Indeed, his most well-known song, Walking In Memphis, explicitly brings forth images of the spiritual nature of music and its power.

It is only fitting, then, that Cohn has recently partnered with the Blind Boys of Alabama, one of the most powerful and successful gospel groups in music history. Their new collaborative album "Work to Do" was released last week by BMG.

In support of the album, they will be appearing at the Oregon Zoo on Friday evening. Taj Mahal, a legend in his own right, is also on the bill.

"I've always had a life-long love of gospel music that I can't fully explain," Cohn told me in a recent interview. "I just remember hearing it growing up."

Cohn began writing lyrics in his pre-teen years, which also coincided with Paul Simon's 1973 single "Loves Me Like a Rock". Importantly, that song and album featured the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds.

"As an enormous fan of Paul Simon, when I heard the tracks he did with the Dixie Hummingbirds, I thought that was the greatest sound I had ever heard. The combination of him, his lyrics, his voice, with that great gospel group really, really moved me."

It isn't surprising, then, that Cohn's material has been deeply influenced by gospel music.

"All kinds of songs of mine have a gospel quartet feeling to them, it's subtle but it is there in terms of the background vocals," he explains.

Given that background, then, it isn't surprising at all that Cohn has partnered with the Blind Boys for what is a fantastic album.

The original plan called for the album to be EP-length, but the combination of Cohn with the gospel group (they have won five Grammys and have been honored withe a Recoding Academy Lifetime Achievement Award) was so powerful the decision was made to release a full-length album.

"Work to Do" contains three studio recordings and seven songs from performances recorded for the PBS concert series "The Kate", filmed at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT.

Cohn brought to the project two original songs, Work to Do and Talk Back Mic, co-written with album producer John Leventhal. The third studio track, Walk in Jerusalem, was essentially an afterthought after the suggestion was made to include a traditional gospel song on the album.

"I'm ashamed to admit I didn't know it," Cohn said. "I had never heard that song, so Jimmy (Carter of the Blind Boys of Alabama) taught it to me in about five minutes. We all sat around in a semi-circle, ran it down once, recorded it once, and we were done. It was the greatest, most organic 12 minutes in the studio I have ever had."

Given the spirituality found in his work, it isn't surprising that Cohn's work with the Blind Boys is as superb as it is. "Working with the Blind Boys has been one of the greatest musical collaborations of my life," Cohn says.

"When I see pictures of myself on stage with the Blind Boys, I've never looked happier."

I'd also add that he's never sounded better.

ON TOUR: Marc Cohn and the Blind Boys of Alabama perform at the Oregon Zoo in Portland on Friday, August 16th. Limited tickets are still available as of this writing. Doors are at 5:00PM with the music beginning at 7:00PM.

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