Paul Thorn, The Blind Boys Of Alabama

Mission Temple Fireworks Revival

Paul Thorn

The Blind Boys Of Alabama

Saturday, August 18

Doors: 6:00 pm / Show: 7:00 pm

The Armory

$32.00

Sold Out

Paul Thorn
Paul Thorn
"This is the culmination of my whole life in music, coming back to my gospel roots," says Paul Thorn about his newest album, Don't Let the Devil Ride. "My message on this record is 'let's get together' - I want to help lighten your load and make you smile."
The son of a preacher man, Mississippi-raised Thorn spent much of his childhood in church, participating in multiple weekly services with his father as well as at neighboring African American congregations, where he became entranced with the music whose infectious spirit is captured on the new album.

Don't Let the Devil Ride collects soulful songs originally cut by black southern gospel groups and features guests the Blind Boys of Alabama, The McCrary Sisters, the Preservation Hall Jazz Horns, and Bonnie Bishop.

The album was recorded at three temples of sound: the Sam C. Phillips Recording studio, whose namesake gave another son of Tupelo his start; at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, where Thorn worked as a songwriter for legendary producer Rick Hall early in his career; and at Preservation Hall, where horn players from the celebrated jazz venue lent songs a New Orleans vibe.

The new release marks Thorn's first time recording gospel music after a dozen albums in roots-rock mode, though his upbringing has previously been reflected in his creation of a body of strikingly original songs. In his own songwriting, Thorn often addresses the foibles of human relationships, although he doesn't favor the sacred over the profane.

As an accomplished painter, former professional boxer, and seasoned skydiver, Thorn has never shied away from new challenges, but cutting a gospel record was just like going home.

Thorn's father Wayne was a bishop in the Church of God of Prophecy, a Pentecostal denomination, and Thorn was just three when he began singing and playing tambourine at services. Congregational participation was valued more than skilled soloists, and Thorn also found a showcase for his talents at Saturday night "singings."

But his most memorable musical experiences were at an African American branch of his father's church, the Okolona Sunrise Church of Prophecy. "There might be ten people playing the tambourine, but the rhythm was locked in, and they'd let me play bass. I loved the Appalachian gospel of my parents' church, but it was a treat to play with those musicians. They worshiped in a different way and the music was different, and I feel blessed to have been in that church setting."

The sermons in Church of God of Prophecy churches warned sinners of fire and brimstone and it wasn't uncommon for congregants for congregants to speak in tongues. But the lasting legacy for Thorn wasn't a strong sense of guilt as it was for many others who grew up in Pentecostal churches. "I think that they use guilt to intimidate you, but I don't buy into that anymore. There ain't no love in that."

Instead he continues to be inspired by the strong sense of communion that was fostered by musical fellowship. "One of things that I take a lot of pride in is that I love everybody, and what I learned in church paid dividends. When I'm up there entertaining it's also a glimpse of what my life has been and how gospel music has molded me into who I am."

Thorn's parents wouldn't allow him listen to secular music at home (in his teens, he had to hide his only two LPs - Elton John and Huey Lewis - from his father), so he listened at friends' houses to Kiss, Peter Frampton, and the bawdy "chitlin' circuit" comedy albums that he credits with inspiring the dark sense of humor that pervades his lyrics. But gospel music remains Thorn's most abiding musical touchstone, the sound that first stirred his soul.

He was just 14 when sometime gospel artist Elvis Presley died - "The world stood still in Tupelo," he recalls - and while the King's records weren't a major influence, Thorn emphasizes the similarity of their early experiences.

"Elvis literally went to a lot of the same churches I did. It's almost identical how we started. When they filmed him from the waist up it wasn't vulgar, it was the moves he learned in church, dancing in the spirit."

At 18 Thorn was caught sneaking out his bedroom window to romance a young neighbor, and his father presented the ultimatum of publicly repenting or "disfellowship" - losing his church membership. He chose the latter and immediately took out a loan to buy a trailer (where he lived 'in sin' with that girlfriend), landed a full-time job at a furniture factory, and joined the National Guard.

Tupelo presented few avenues for professional musicians, but Thorn soon met his longtime songwriting partner Billy Maddox, who had strong ties to the musical hub of Muscle Shoals. The duo began writing under contract for Rick Hall, owner of the legendary Fame Recording Studios, where Thorn cut demos of their songs.

As a performer, Thorn was playing solo gigs in Tupelo for $50 a night and further supplemented his factory income with boxing. He learned to box from his paternal uncle Merle, a one-time pimp celebrated in "Pimps and Preachers," Thorn's autobiographical song about his two mentors: "One drug me through the darkness/One led me to the light/One showed me how to love/One taught me how to fight."

Thorn would box fourteen professional fights (10-3-1) as a middleweight between 1985 and 1988 with his most prominent match against four-time World Champion Roberto Duran. He lasted a respectable six rounds before a doctor stopped the fight due to multiple cuts.

Although proud of his boxing career, Thorn says that he's not surprised he's achieved more success as a performer. "I went a long way in boxing, and got to fight one of the greatest, but the reason Duran beat me and everyone else was that he had the ability to relax under extreme pressure. When I was in the ring I was nervous and afraid, but when I'm on stage I'm comfortable. I've been singing in front of people all my life and I know what I've got to do."

The songs on Don't Let the Devil Ride, co-produced by Billy Maddox and Colin Linden, likewise fall into that same comfort zone.

"We're bringing Paul's fans under the tent at a revival," says Maddox, who likewise grew up listening to black gospel. "A lot of emotion goes on in those places, with people being saved while the band's playing behind them."

The exuberance of the music, says Thorn, evokes the warm-hearted nature of these social gatherings. "The first track, 'Come On Let's Go,' it's talking about going to church - that I can't wait to see you, and see you how you've you been doing," says Thorn.

Few of the songs here are well known. Maddox found most of them while digging through releases from small gospel labels in Mississippi and Alabama. "We just picked things that had a great pocket," he says. "One person described the feel as 'gospel lyrics set to stripper music' and that's pretty close. The songs are slinky and greasy and right in Paul's wheelhouse."

The most familiar track here is no doubt Thorn's relaxed tempo version of the O'Jays "Love Train," a song whose feel-good qualities readily adapt to a gospel setting. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, whose records Thorn listened to as a teen, made it a staple of their live performances.

The other songs stretch back much farther, but their themes - of redemption, taking stock of one's life, and resilience in the face of troubles - are universal, making them readily adaptable to the fresh takes here. Nashville's McCrary Sisters, for instance, lend a buoyant feel to "You Got to Move," a northeast Mississippi standard, best known through a solemn slide guitar take by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

The sisters' father was a founder of the Fairfield Four, a capella gospel singers whose live radio broadcasts on CBS in the '40s and '50s were extremely influential. Fellow guest artists the Blind Boys of Alabama, founded in 1944, were founders of the "hard gospel" quartet style that dominated the era from which many of the songs on this record where drawn. Also joining Thorn on vocals is Texas-born Bonnie Bishop, who attributes her soulful singing style to spending her formative years in Mississippi.

Both Maddox and Thorn were longtime friends with Hall and the Phillips family, and Maddox says that recording in Memphis and Muscle Shoals was a natural extension of the whole process and the only proper way to honor this particular body of work. "We were returning to the Motherland."

Rick Hall died in January of 2018, making the whole experience that much more poignant for Thorn and co-producer Maddox.

"The last time I saw Rick he came into the FAME studio to say hello," Maddox recalls. "We invited him to sit down and listen to the playback of a track we'd just finished. He closed his eyes and leaned over the console as the music played.

"About halfway through the tune he turned the monitors down, looked me right in the eye and said, 'What have you done?' I asked him what he meant. Then he got this big grin on his face and said, 'Well, that sounds just like me.' That moment validated everything about this record for me and Paul."
The Blind Boys Of Alabama
The Blind Boys Of Alabama
In the seven decades since the Blind Boys of Alabama first began singing together, America has witnessed a World War, the civil rights movement, and the Summer of Love; the moon landing, Vietnam, and the fall of the Berlin Wall; JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the invention of the jukebox, the atomic bomb, and the internet. Through it all, the Blind Boys' music has not only endured, but thrived, helping both to define the sound of the American south and to push it forward through the 20th century and well on into the 21st. Praised by NPR as "pioneers," the group has transcended barriers of race and genre to become one of the most acclaimed and celebrated groups in modern music. From the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind, where the original members met as children, all the way to The White House - where they've performed for three different presidents - the band's story is, in many ways, America's story, and that story is at the heart of their emotional new album, 'Almost Home.'

Recorded over four different sessions helmed by four different GRAMMY-winning producers in four different cities, 'Almost Home' recounts the band's remarkable journey, primarily through original songs written for them by an outstanding collection of artists including Valerie June, the North Mississippi Allstars, Phil Cook, John Leventhal, Marc Cohn, and Ruthie Foster among others. The record is the band's first in three years, following on the heels of 2014's 'Talkin' Christmas!' with Taj Mahal and their 2013 collaboration with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, 'I'll Find A Way,' and it sees them picking up right where they left off, blending the sacred and secular, the traditional and innovative, the past and present.

'Almost Home' grew out of the recognition that the band's original lineup is down to just two remaining survivors: long-time group leader Clarence Fountain and current leader Jimmy Carter. Both men were born in Alabama during the Great Depression, and while Carter is still active and regularly touring with the group, Fountain's health precludes him from traveling much these days, though he does appear on the album.

"These men were both raised as blind, African American males in the Deep South during the Jim Crow years, and they were sent to a school where the expectation for them was to one day make brooms or mops for a living," says Blind Boys manager Charles Driebe. "But they've transcended all that. The arc of their lives and of the band reflects the arc of a lot of changes in American society, and we wanted to find a way to capture their experiences in songs."

So Driebe went on a pilgrimage with a film crew in tow, recording wide-ranging interviews with Fountain and Carter at their homes in Baton Rouge and Birmingham, pressing deep into their memories of their improbable route to success and the changing, sometimes-hostile world they had to navigate along the way. The focus was less on capturing a biographical account of events and more on probing the emotional side of their journey, hoping to understand what it felt like to walk such a winding and eventful road. The interviews were then distilled down into 30-minute videos and shared with a variety of songwriters who were invited to channel Carter and Fountain's words and reminiscences into song.

With nearly 50 tracks submitted for consideration, the producers and the band had a sea of material to sift through. They were searching for more than just great songs, though. The music needed to speak directly and authentically to the Blind Boys' soul. The result is 'Almost Home,' a 12-track collection that captures the band's singular spirit and pulls off the masterful feat of looking backwards while still sounding as vital and modern as ever.

The album opens with the captivating "Stay On The Gospel Side," which sets the stage perfectly as it traces Fountain's roots all the way back to childhood and recounts the band's insistence on remaining true to their origins. Written by John Leventhal and Marc Cohn (with an additional credit to Fountain, since the title came from his exact words), the track is one of a trio of songs produced by Leventhal (Rosanne Cash, William Bell) and recorded in New York City, and it showcases the stunning range of joy and pain contained in the group's beautifully weathered voices. On "Pray For Peace,” which is the Blind Boys’ version of a song submitted by the North Mississippi Allstars and recorded in Nashville with at the studio of Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, Jack White), the group offers up a foot-stomping, electrifying gospel blues for our troubled times. Meanwhile, the Cris Jacobs'-penned "I Kept On Walking,” recorded in Muscle Shoals with Los Lobos' Steve Berlin (Faith No More, Buckwheat Zydeco) producing, is a rave-up about persistence and resilience in the face of struggle and doubt, and the folky "Train Fare,” written by Valerie June and recorded in Seattle with long-time Blind Boys producer Chris Goldsmith (Charlie Musselwhite, Ben Harper), looks back on all the good works of the band's career as their ticket to the afterlife. Goldsmith also nodded to his previous recordings with the band by adding two gorgeous covers - a soulful take on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and a chipper version of Billy Joe Shaver's "Live Forever" - both of which look to brighter days ahead in a world beyond our own.

Given the age of the surviving original members, it's not hard to hear the subtext of the album. In lines like "my work is done and I'm finally going home to see my maker," they acknowledge that they're closer to the end than the beginning. But rather than resting on their laurels, the band is adding a new chapter to their legacy, creating some of the finest work of their career as they solidify their place not just in musical history, but in the very fabric of American culture. The original members may be 'Almost Home,' but it's clear the Blind Boys intend to keep on singing, spreading peace, joy, and love until the very last note.



About the Blind Boys of Alabama:

Hailed as "gospel titans" by Rolling Stone, the Blind Boys first rose to fame in the segregated south with their thrilling vocal harmonies and roof-raising live show. They released their debut single, "I Can See Everybody’s Mother But Mine," on the iconic Veejay label in 1948, launching a 70-year recording career that would see them rack up five GRAMMY Awards (plus one for Lifetime Achievement), enter the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, collaborate with everyone from Mavis Staples and Stevie Wonder to Prince and Lou Reed, and perform on the world's most prestigious stages. It would be difficult to overstate the Blind Boys' influence on their contemporaries and the generations that came after. The New York Times said that they "came to epitomize what is known as jubilee singing, a livelier breed of gospel music," adding that "they made it zestier still by adding jazz and blues idioms and turning up the volume, creating a sound…like the rock 'n' roll that grew out of it." TIME Magazine raved that "they're always hunting for - and finding - the perfect note or harmony that lifts an old tune into the sublime," while The Washington Post praised their "soul-stirring harmonies" and "range of cross-genre collaborations," and The New Yorker simply called them "legendary."

"When the Blind Boys started out, we weren't even thinking about all these accolades and all that stuff," founding member Jimmy Carter told NPR. "We just wanted to get out and sing gospel and tell the world about gospel music." Mission accomplished!
Venue Information:
The Armory
314 E. Mountain Ave
Fort Collins, CO, 80524