Record producer Brian Brinkerhoff had an interesting idea: make a record of spirituals composed by artists who aren’t primarily known for writing spirituals. And then, he has another interesting idea: have a past member of the legendary gospel singing group lead on this record. Sam Butler, formerly a guitarist and singer in the Blind Boys of Alabama, took Brinkerhoff on his suggestion for what resulted in his own debut album, Raise Your Hands! , and he couldn’t have made a better way to make his introduction as a solo artist.
Raise Your Hands!, now out through Severn Records, isn’t an entirely original idea, as the Blind Boys themselves have made memorable covers of songs by Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, but here’s an entire album built around that tactic by someone who’s more than capable of carrying it out. Backed economically but very efficiently by crack sideman — Roosevelt Collier (Sacred Steel) on pedal steel, Viktor Krauss (Bill Frisell, Lyle Lovett) on upright bass and Marco Giovino (Robert Planet, Tom Jones) on drums — Butler rocks the pews, and rocks ’em hard.
The title comes from repeating chorus from Bruce Springsteen’s “Heaven’s Wall,” and Butler’s vocal is earnest but his growling guitar dominates. But what happens in the instrumental break is some give-and-take between Krauss and Collier’s wailing pedal steel. It’s an unlikely method for inspiration and it’s fearsome. Johnny Cash’s “Lead Me Father” is set to a “Manic Depression” shuffle and Collier’s slide solo scours the depths of hell while Butler himself moans for salvation. Eric Clapton’s gentle Blind Faith contribution “Presence Of The Lord” is graced with Collier’s lonesome pedal steel and Butler’s soft pleading, until the haunting, heavy guitar riff part is reached, posited as the ending climax in Butler’s version. Butler removes the chaos out of Tom Waits’ original reading of “Gospel Train” and uncovers a crunchy blues-rock number.
One of U2’s imposing tracks from their recent No Line on the Horizon album might be one of the more unlikely selections here, since U2 isn’t easily linked to gospel, but Collier’s weeping chords make the connection seem natural. Ironically, the band mines celestial, majestic aural terrain championed by U2 for Van Morrison’s “Full Force Gale” instead, and leaves Butler’s voice alone to provide the impassioned soul.
Nick Cave is the secular songwriter who often touches on religious topics and the one he wrote with Paul Kelly, “God’s Hotel,” is delivered convincingly without the sense of satire Cave himself gave it. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “Wherever You Leadeth” has a comfortable early 70s Memphis groove in Butler & Company’s hands. For the last selection, Brinkerhoff and Butler chose Eliza Gilkyson’s transcendent “Sanctuary,” and they wisely stuck to the original sentiment of her rendition; Collier in particular does some real beautiful work on it.
Like all the best religious records, Raise Your Hands! has that the ability to lift the spirits of pagans and Christians alike. All that’s required is a belief in good, unfiltered rock ‘n’ roll, which, after all, owes some of its heritage to Gospel. It could be said that Sam Butler brought us full circle.